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The Uncertain Future of Québec’s Most Beautiful Abandoned Mine

After a vote on Wednesday, Québec might blow up the mine with dynamite.

by Brigitte Noël
Oct 19 2016, 1:00pm

Image: Jean Paul Villegas

Tucked away in a sleepy part of rural Québec, the Wallingford-Back Mine was long considered forgotten, depleted and shuttered since the '70s.

Yet when its owners put an end to mining operations there, they left behind some of the site's most valuable gems: a breathtaking cavern of vaulted ceilings and crystalline waters, and a living and breathing laboratory cherished by scientists, who travel there to research everything from the species it hosts to its rare geological features.

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A sudden spike in the abandoned mine's popularity, partly spurred by local news reports and social media posts, has recently brought carloads of tourists to traipse around the cavern's quiet countryside. This is much to the chagrin of local residents, who say their peaceful existence has been upended.

Image: Carl Mondello

The locals, who wish to see the mine permanently destroyed by way of blowing the whole thing to the ground with dynamite, are now squaring off against a group of well-meaning scientists, historians and outdoor adventurers lobbying to preserve the site.

This week, officials will vote on its fate. On Wednesday night, the area's mayors will decide whether to invest in developing the site for touristic and/or scientific purposes, or to shut it down for good.

Image: Carl Mondello

The Wallingford-Back Mine is located in Mulgrave-et-Derry, a municipality about two hours west of Montreal that is home to fewer than 300 residents. From 1924 to 1972, the mine produced minerals used to make ceramics, household cleaners and even dental prosthetics, and was at one point the largest quartz and feldspar mine in North America.

Its latest incarnation as a tourist destination only started in recent years. Residents blame a CTV News broadcast, which showed stunning images of people playing hockey on the cave's limpid turquoise ice. Its new status as a daytrip destination is far from official, however: the site's perimeter is completely barricaded, and the one-lane dirt road leading up to the abandoned cave was not built to accommodate hordes of visitors.

A hole in the fence has allowed hundreds if not thousands of hikers, swimmers and ice skaters to take advantage of the cavern's natural wonders, further popularizing the site through breathtaking photos posted on Instagram and Facebook.

Image: Jean Paul Villegas

As Motherboard arrived at the mine [full disclosure: this was as part of a guided visit organized by Les amis de la mine Back, a group fighting to save the site], we were met by roughly 20 area residents who'd gathered to block our access and plead their case.

"Before we had a normal life but now we no longer have that," said André Blais, clutching a placard that read a very polite "Give us back our homes please," in French.

Image: Carl Mondello

Blais explained that this past summer, as many as 400 cars in one day had parked on both sides of his small road, blocking local traffic and creating mayhem for the many cottage dwellers and residents. "Visitors throw their trash everywhere, it's dirty."

"People built their houses here and they've now put them up for sale," he said, gesturing toward one of the many real estate signs erected along the path. "The tourists don't respect us, they steal wood in our yard and make campfires."

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For Blais, the preservation proponents' plan—securing the site and building a bypass route to veer tourists away from residential areas—is not a viable option. "That's going to take money," he said. "Millions and millions of our tax dollars."

But the many scientists present during this organized visit told Motherboard that they're fiercely opposed to destroying the mine, given the research they'd be able to do there.

Image: Carl Mondello

Decked out in a headlamp helmet, biologist Pascal Samson explained that the massive stone arches host certain important species of bats.

"We've identified two species: the big brown bat and the little brown bat," he said. According to him, the discovery "confirms this cave is a potential winter hibernaculum, which means bats can spend their winter here."

This matters, he said, because the bat population is being decimated by a tropical fungal disease called white nose syndrome. "In Québec, the disease has been around since 2012 and sites like this are particularly important because a quality habitat gives [bats] a better chance to survive this illness."

Image: Carl Mondello

Because of its well-lit and well-protected environment, the site is also a prime laboratory for the study of ice, offering unusually transparent surfaces free of any snow covering.

For geologist André Desrochers [that's french for "of the rocks," a suitable name for someone in this line of work], the mine is a veritable cave of treasures.

"There's not only feldspar and quartz but also all kinds of exotic minerals that we seldom see in the earth's crust," he said. "There is tourmaline, garnet and remarkably, trace quantities of a radioactive mineral called allanite."

For the last fifteen years—starting more than a decade before most Instagrammers had heard of Wallingford-Back—Desrochers has been fighting to get the mine officially recognized as a site of geological importance in the province, to ensure its protection but also to showcase its value.

"Mines that were exploited in this way where you can still see the pillars [massive columns of rock holding up the ceiling] are quite unique," he explained. "This is the only mine with pillars still standing in Québec and possibly even, in all of Canada."

Image: Carl Mondello

Looking around at the garbage and graffiti left behind by visitors, he recognized the task has become more challenging. "It's a pretty particular clientèle, people who don't have a problem transgressing the rules," he said. "So now there's all this negative attention around the mine and if we're at this [crossroads] it's because of these visits, of this lack of respect."

On Wednesday, the area's elected officials will vote on whether or not they are willing to invest in the site's preservation, a proposition bolstered by a petition signed by over 4,000 people.

If they vote against this plan, the ball falls into the provincial government's court, and Desrochers fears this could mean the worst.

"We think that the short-term solution the government has in its cards is to dynamite it."

Image: Carl Mondello

Québec Environment Minister spokesperson Sylvain Carrier confirmed this. "The government won't be investing in this project," he told Motherboard. If the region's mayors vote for a development project, he said, the municipalities would have to incur the [likely multi-million dollar] costs.

If they decide against this investment, "it's almost certain the site will be dynamited."

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