The Ouje-Bougoumou mining contamination issue is dragging on as governments at all levels fail to bring the political will required to deal with it.
“It’s been seven years of studies after studies.
We all know there is something wrong. How long will it be before we actually do something?” asked Louise Wapachee, a local resident during an OJ community assembly April 11.
If the sudden pullout of the Quebec government from an OJ mining contamination forum in Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, is any indication, it will be a long time. The April 9 forum was cancelled when the government pulled out only a week before it was scheduled.
France Dionne, Quebec’s Delegate to New England, told the Nation that the cancellation was a result of the recent provincial election. Dionne replied in an email that “Members of the new cabinet have not been known, including the one handling relations with the First Nations.”
One of the considerations might have been that the OJ assembly would be delivering reports on the contamination and Quebec wanted to see where the results would be first.
Despite a majority of reports saying there are few or noproblems associated with the contamination, many OJ residents are still worried and appeared skeptical of the presenters and presentations.
It is an issue Abel Bosum tried to address at the community assembly, saying the last two presenters were independent firms hired to carry out studies. “There’s been a lack of trust before so we have tried to change that so no one gets accused of trying to impose one viewpoint,” he said.
Bosum said the band’s objective in handling the mining contamination issue is one of long-term benefits or results. “It will make it better in terms of decisions involving the land, the animals and our community. We want solutions.”
One of the surprising solutions offered at the assembly was from the Cree Board of Health and Social Services. Mathieu Trepanier, Environment Health Program Officer for the CBHSS, said people should still eat the fish even if it’s contaminated with heavy metals. He said the choice was one of risk assessment and management.
Trepanier said the message has changed from the days when authorities recommended against consuming fish. He talked about a balance between the contamination and becoming overweight through junk food eating and loss of physical activity, the onset of diabetes, and loss of cultural identity through lessening the ties to the land. He recommended adults (but not pregnant women) and children over two years old limit themselves to two meals a week with low mercury fish with portions no larger than one’s palm.
Trepanier also cautioned that no one should eat the livers of fish or moose (kidneys also for moose), as they are highly contaminated with heavy metals, especially cadmium.
Another surprising health fact is the rate of smoking among OJ residents. The cadmium levels in OJ residents were “2.5 to 3.0 fold higher compared to the southern Quebec comparison group. Smoking was the main factor, but exposure through the consumption of game liver and kidney remains plausible,” said Trepanier.
This revelation led band councilor Anthony Hughboy to ask if OJ was the smoking capital of Quebec. Trepanier said if residents were worried they could undertake tests at the local clinic. These tests are available in all nine communities and any abnormal results will be sent to and reviewed by Dr. Robinson at the Public Health department of the CBHSS.
Louise Wapachee said she has been researching similar communities with mining contamination problems. “I’ve learnt the big corporations and governments turn around and blame the victims,” Wapachee revealed. “We eat badly or we smoke and that’s why we have these health problems. If the contamination in the liver is high and it gets sick then the fish gets sick. It shows up in the lesions and cysts. Where are the health standards and levels when it’s all about profits? The contamination levels have increased for the Cree as our traditional foods getcontaminated. I don’t mind all the reports except when they are all the same. We know there’s a problem, we don’t need more. If we aren’t doing anything about it we are denying it.”
Chris Covel, the New Hampshire geologist who first raised the issue seven years ago, was given partial redemption when Denis Laliberté said Covel was proven right but only concerning the sediment. Covel was happy as in a past issue of the Nation he had said, “Prove me wrong.”
In Laliberté’s presentation he mentions that in some tailing areas the concentrations of metals “would likely produce adverse effects for aquatic organisms if these substances were present in the aquatic environment.” He was referring to the Copper Rand mine and the concentrations of arsenic.
His powerpoint display of sediment samples from Lac Doré and Lac Chibougamau said, “The enrichment is attributable to a contribution of human origin.” It concerned nickel, zinc, arsenic, cadmium and copper.
Laliberté’s report entitled, METAL CONCENTRATIONS IN FISH AND SEDIMENTS FROM LAKES AUX DORÉS, CHIBOUGAMAU, OBATOGAMAU AND WACONICHI IN 2002, states it stronger.
“The results show that in Lac aux Dorés, high copper levels in sediments extend more than 3.5 km downstream from mining activities and are likely to cause toxicity in aquatic organisms.
“In Lac Chibougamau, high arsenic, copper and nickel levels were measured east of Pointe-au-Bouleau, near mining activities. High natural levels of chromium and nickel were also measured in McKenzie Bay, located far from mining activities. These levels are likely to cause toxicity in aquatic organisms.”
Laliberté said many of the samples he took from some sites were in lower layers suggesting subsequent reductions in emissions.
Once again the liver of fish would show there are problems as six metals far exceeded the detection limits. The metals are cadmium, copper, mercury, manganese and zinc. PCBs were also found that exceed commercialization of fish products as set by Health Canada.
OJ residents, though, were told they were found not to be at risk.
A battle of scientists and methodology left many Cree wondering what was going on when the topic of waterborne cyanide was raised. Laliberté said they didn’t detect any cyanide. Covel was quick to point out they didn’t test below the government limits of 6 parts per billion while he tested to I part per billion and found a lot that way with his highest reading being 5 parts per billion. An argument ensued on what was safe. Covel said the limits were based on a healthy human male between 25-40 years of age. He asked Laliberté if he was willing to drink a glass of water with 5 parts per billion of cyanide in it. Laliberté replied he would have no problems with doing that.
The cyanide question continued into fish flesh. Laliberté said there were no guidelines so he didn’t test for cyanide in fish flesh. Covel said he found some in the flesh.
Jacques Berube, a CJB Environment Inc biologist, said it didn’t matter as cyanide wasn’t bio-accumulative.
Jeff Littleton, a wildlife biologist with Moosewood Ecologie, said cyanide does not really bio-accumulate in fish flesh but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a danger. Cyanide compounds will bond with other elements, both organic and inorganic, to become cyanide breakdown compounds. These will last longer and while they are usually not as toxic, they can pose a serious threat to the environment as they may stay around longer than cyanide.
So when regulators and the mining industry claim cyanide rapidly breaks down in water into harmless compounds it is only part of the story. No regulatory standards exist for most of these potentially toxic compounds and so there is generally no testing done for them. There was no testing done for these compounds for the OJ studies.
It is interesting to note that a 1998 Mineral Policy Center report, Cyanide Uncertainties: Observations on the Chemistry, Toxicity, and Analysis of Cyanide in Mining-Related Waters, said a water sample can easily have a WAD cyanide concentration of less than 0.05 mg/l and still contain concentrations of cyanate or thiocyanate that are potentially toxic to fish.
Edith Van de Walle tabled her report on Cree land uses and said they identified 66 potentially contaminated sites. Work in 2006 was done by OJ community members as well as MRNF (Ministry of Mines and Natural Resources) and MDDEP (Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks) resources. They visited 23 sites, including 13 mining and 10 non-mining sites.
The Lac Gwillim mine was determined to be inactive and secure. There was no reclamation of the land and abundant wastes. It was seen as the responsibility of the MRNF. The Joe Mann mine was active and had contaminated soils. The CCEQ (environmental police, so to speak) would be looking into it.
The Lac Gwillim site (2) was inactive, unsecured and non-reclaimed. Contamination levels were unknown to the MRNF and are under their responsibility.
The Barrette-Chapais sawmill had presence of wastes and contaminated waters. A follow-up by the CCEQ will be done.
In 2007, 28 other sites will be visited. An interesting point for Crees was when the Municipality of James Bay was mentioned. Even though this is a sore point for many Crees as they have control over category III lands they also have responsibilities.
They are responsible for the clean-up of illegal dumpsites. Cleaning them all up all over the territory could very well bankrupt this fledgling municipality.
The final two presenters from CJB Environment Inc, Jacques Berube and Johnathon Olson, said their study was still in progress and they needed to have the best possible understanding of the community’s concerns and expectations to complete their report.
Their objectives were to identify an area where there was no risk and where there was risk. They also said they wanted to fill in the gaps where there was no enough or no data so they could suggest future studies. To date they have been looking at data that is based on existing information and reports as well as looking at traditional uses of the land by OJ residents.
These include hunting, trapping and fishing and the concerns of the community concerning safety in continuing these practices. Olson and Berube would be looking at ecological receptors – fish, lake bottom animals, otters and waterfowl (i.e., loons) – in the aquatic or water environments and land animals such as birds, moose, black bear, rabbits and red fox as well as plants.
They are currently looking at the ways contaminants can pass through the environment whether it is through contaminated soil to plants or through the food chain. In the end they hope to no the risks involved for all “receptors.” They say there are three possible outcomes: no risk, possible risk requiring a more detailed study and not enough information to evaluate the risks. In the end they hope to have a comprehensive environmental risk assessment with longterm monitoring of the health of the environment.
Matthew Wapachee, an OJ tallyman on a heavily impacted trapline, said, “They start with the trees and we couldn’t hunt. Then came mining and all that. That’s how the government works. They destroy the land. I had a good life before the white man came around destroying the land. I know the government; they’ll destroy the land again. They plant the trees. My grandchildren can’t go hunting. If you are trying to make it [land] like before do it quickly for us [trappers and other Cree], The white men have different ways with chicken and cars. I tell the truth. I tell what I see.”
Cynthia Wapachee told how her father Matthew used to bring her fish while she was going to school in the south. “We didn’t know it was contaminated. That was what I was feeding my children. I live off of my father’s hunting. I have six children. I’m going to my goose camp in two weeks. Is it safe to eat the fishthere? Is it safe for me to drink the water there? That’s my question. We can’t seem to go anywhere. We need the Grand Chief and the Grand Council to help us out.”
The Wapachee family is requesting just that. Matthew Wapachee and two other tallymen ofaffected traplines went to Ottawa to attend a Council/Board meeting and presented a letter to them.
The letter was from Matthew Wapachee (Tallyman of 0-59), James Wapachee (0-57), George Shecapio Blacksmith (0-61), Lawrence Shecapio (0-62), Charlie Mianscum (0-60) ands Joseph Shari (0-60) and addressed to all the chiefs and Grand Council. The letters say the tallymen are aware of the New Cree-Quebec Relationship Agreement (NCQRA) and that they have no intentions to change this relationship or destroy it.
However, they believe the NCQRA wasn’t given any special rights to override human rights, including the right to live in a healthy environment. The tallymen say the Health Risk Assessment Report that was presented to their community on April 1 failed to answer their questions and concerns. They say the report was about people but not the contaminated sites.
“It fails to determine the level of toxicity within waters, animals and marine life. Moreover, it fails to offer immediate and long-term solution in addressing the heavily contained sites,” the letter said.
The tallymen also said this wasn’t just an OJ issue but a Cree nation issue and should be handled as such. They referred to the Covel report submitted to the Grand Council in the fall of 2002.
Grand Chief Matthew Mukash said the letter was discussed by the Grand Council and the Executive was given a mandate to address or resolve the concerns of the OJ community. “We prefer to have a position taken by the community and work with the band councils. We hope to go to OJ after goose break to discuss this issue and what can be done,” said Mukash.