While there is finally a plan in place to clean up last year’s mine tailings spill at Opimiska, there is still huffing and puffing going on about how the contract was handed out to do the work.
It all started one year ago when excessive rainwater caused a dyke around the defunct Opimiska mine tailings pond to burst, washing out a road and sending the metal contaminants downstream to the Waswanipi River.
At the time the Quebec government was called in to test Waswanipi’s river water to ensure it was safe for human consumption and that the pollutants within the spill would not be harmful to the aquatic life.
Though the results of those tests, which were handed over to the Cree Regional Authority, initially said the water was safe, local residents in Waswanipi were skeptical having seen the original tailings pond firsthand. The presence of dead fish after the spill made the residents uneasy.
Because of the public’s uneasiness, Waswanipi Chief John Kitchen requested that Paul Dixon get in touch with U.S. geologist Christopher Covel to come in and perform his own analysis of the situation. Covel had done similar work nine years earlier when a similar problem occurred in the Chibougamau region.
Covel, along with wildlife biologist Dr. Jodie Kubitz, traveled to Waswanipi last fall to assess the fallout from the spill and examine the initial cleanup activities. Kubitz made the trip on behalf of American environmental and natural-resource management firm Entrix. Over the course of their three-day visit, the two recreated a forensic analysis of what had happened and then what was required to remediate and clean up the spill and to prevent future problems.
Prior to the trip up north, Covel had the opportunity to discuss the situation with Kitchen in Montreal as the chief was curious to know whether it was feasible that the water could actually be potable, as the Quebec government claimed.
“It was because the Quebec government had given [Kitchen] a piece of paper and a letter saying that the water was safe to drink. The CRA had signed off on it saying that they were in agreement. But when I looked at the paper and the documentation, I realized that the data and samples were collected improperly,” said Covel.
Covel explained that the tests in question were performed within 48 hours of the initial spill. Those working on behalf of the government sampled the water below the immediate dyke failure and they came up with very high levels of contaminants and then sampled the water in Waswanipi on the same day.
The major problem with this is that it would have taken about three to four days for the plume of contaminants to make its way downstream to where the water was actually tested in Waswanipi, stated Covel.
In reviewing the government data that was handed to Kitchen, Covel said it was easy to determine that the tests were improperly conducted as they were done on water that had not yet been contaminated. Many community members also corroborated this when they saw the white plume of mine tailings come downstream several days after the incident.
Acknowledging this, Covel was concerned for the people in Waswanipi as he felt the government was not doing its job by telling the public that the water was safe and this might have been done intentionally.
“Anybody who took that sample knew exactly what they were doing and if they didn’t, then they should not have been out there taking samples. The bottom line is that the data was bad,” said Covel.
With the presence of the visible mine slurry in the water, not only would fish not be able to spawn within those waters, the heavy-metal-laden waters could be potentially harmful to the human population in the area.
After seeing their findings, Kitchen requested that Covel and Kubitz make a proposal to the Crees to restore and remediate the environmental damage as a result of the dyke catastrophically failing.
Upon returning to the U.S., Covel and Kubitz then spent a month creating a proposal for the Waswanipi Band and the CRA for the cleanup. While doing so they decided that it would be ideal to put a clause in the proposal to train local Crees to act as researchers. This would be so that non-Native consultants would not have to be called in every time there was a problem.
Both men, who tend to work on pay scales that are upwards of $150/hour, paid out of their own pocket for the three-day excursion to the north where they spent 12-hour days in the field.
After Covel and Kubitz submitted their proposal in late 2008, it was rejected. The Grand Council wanted to make an official call for tenders in the following spring and, at that, Brian Craik of the GCC said that he had issues with the proposal.
At the time Craik accused Covel of fear-mongering and said that there was no evidence to even suggest that the waters were polluted with contaminants. Covel and Kubitz had found significant scientific evidence of arsenic among other heavy metals.
“I was disappointed with Chris’ proposal because it was also dragging in a large corporation from the States. It explained something that he had said to me earlier, that he was thinking of becoming a member of this corporation,” Craik told the Nation earlier this year.
Early this spring, the call for tenders appeared on the Grand Council’s website and both Covel and Kubitz found themselves in shock. According to both men who wrote the proposal, the call for tenders was almost word-for-word their proposal which left them feeling stunned.
What was even more offensive, according to Covel, was that the call for tenders also indicated that those who took the contract would have to work for one year before payment could ensue and at that only upon acceptance of the final report.
Covel then inquired with the Grand Council’s Environmental Coordinator Ginette Lajoie to find out if indeed a mistake had been made.
Lajoie told Covel over the phone at the time that regardless as to whether there was an error in the call for tenders, there was nothing she could do about it and the information on the Grand Council’s website could not be changed.
Because of the payment schedule in the proposal, Covel and new employer, Hillier and Associates, felt that they could not make a bid on the contract.
“I could never see anyone who would accept that [payment terms] for a couple of reasons. One is that no one in the business really would operate for a full year spending upwards of $100,000-$200,000 without being reimbursed. The other is that it really raises the question of whether there would be some kind of pressure applied to provide the answer that was desired,” said James Hillier.
Corresponding with the Nation from the U.S., Entrix’s Jodie Kubitz sent the magazine this statement:
“While we are flattered that the Cree Regional Authority saw sufficient merit in the intellectual property aspects of that detailed proposal to excerpt nearly all of it in their Call for Tender five months later, we are disappointed that we received neither any formal feedback from the CRA on our proposal, nor that they allowed any opportunity for a fair and reasonable response, based on the commercial conditions in their solicitation. Even more disappointing is that the CRA’s action jeopardizes the Cree people’s opportunity to work with so credible an organization to collect the necessary information, assess it, and then apply it for meaningful and timely protection.”
A month later Covel was informed by local residents in the Cree communities that the contract had been handed out to Genivar, a large Quebec-based multi-national conglomerate that deals in everything from environment to food service to communications. They do business across Canada and abroad. Also, the terms of payment for the contract had suddenly changed – those who were awarded the contract would be paid on a monthly basis.
In a letter dated June 2, Lajoie informed Covel: “When you raised your concerns about the payment for work, it was in fact too late to change the tender document, even if we had wanted to do so. However, there was nothing to stop any of those planning to submit tenders from proposing that the terms of the contract vary from those in the document.”
While Hillier and Associates could have put out a bid that varied from the call for tenders, what Covel, Hillier and Kubitz find disturbing about the bidding process is that while a mistake was made in the proposal is understandable, the GCCEI’s inflexibility to changing it is not. As far as they are concerned, it led to an unfair bidding process.
For Covel, in particular, because of his previous dealings with Craik and the GCCEI, he believes that more was at play than just a simple mistake.
“Everybody, who was on the inside track, was doing it deliberately to keep people like us out. I think they want the same old thing that the Crees have been getting since 1975 and it could be seen as a bunch of bullshit fed to them by the CRA and the Quebec government. It’s like the initial water sample that was taken where they said the water was safe to drink. We now have a half a million dollar study out there saying that the water is not safe to drink,” said Covel.
Covel and Hillier have since registered a complaint with the Grand Council in regards to the “unfair” bidding process and requested that the bidding process start all over again. Within the complaint the similarities between the original proposal and the call for tenders put out by the GCCEI was also mentioned.
The Nation magazine approached both Lajoie and Craik for interviews in regards to this matter. Craik refused the interview citing that Lajoie would be a more appropriate interview. But after placing calls to both Lajoie’s office and cellphone, the Nation’s calls were not returned.