I read with interest the recent articles in The Nation (Vol 16, Issues 11 & 12, April 10 & 24, 2009) on the presentation at the end of March to the Oujé-Bougoumou people of the results of the risk assessment of metals released to the environment in the course of mining operations in the Chibougamau region over the last 50 years. I have been a member since 2007 of the Steering Committee for the studies which were reported on this occasion, and have been working with representatives of Oujé-Bougoumou on the challenging task of producing an English translation of the report as a whole as well as texts which will make the analysis accessible to a broad range of individuals with different backgrounds and familiarity with the issues involved in assessing the risks associated with metals in the environment. I have sent this letter because I believe that a number of issues arising from the Oujé-Bougoumou meetings need to be explained or clarified.

This expresses my own views on the subject, but I believe that what I am saying reflects the views of other members of the Steering Committee representing both Oujé-Bougoumou and the Government of Quebec.

1.    What was presented in Oujé-Bougoumou were the results of a ‘Screening Level’ of analysis, based on existing data on metals in soils and sediments (some collected for mineral exploration purposes, and some for environmental monitoring) in the Chibougamau region. Although it is true that this aspect of the risk assessment is limited to existing information, it should be emphasised that a number of parallel steps have been taken to describe the quality of existing lake sediments and waters, and to assess them in relation to the history of mineral exploration. There have also been several studies of the composition and health of the major fish populations in the lakes in the study area. Finally, a study is currently being completed on the accumulation by bottom-dwelling animals of metals from the sediments in the areas most directly affected by past practices for the disposal of mining wastes. I personally hope that the meeting in Oujé-Bougoumou will lead to further discussions with community members on the documentation which they need in order to understand the different studies that have been carried out. We have retained the services of a science writer who will work with us (Michelle Picard-Aitken), and as we move ahead with our work on risk communication we really need feedback from community representatives.

2.    The emphasis has been placed on the consequences of the past practices of disposing mine wastes (tailings) from ore treatment operations directly into (or along the shores of) Doré Lake and Chibougamau Lake. This is an understandable concern, and it is a major focus of the risk assessment. However, I think it is very important to keep in mind the possible long-term consequences of past mining – and there are around 20 former mines in the Chibougamau region. The Oujébougoumou meeting was intended to provide a framework for continuing collaboration between the community and government officials (especially the Ministry of Natural Resources) in order to understand the conditions at the different mine and mill sites and identify appropriate remedial or control measures where they are needed. This is where the major work now needs to be done, and it is particularly important to have community involvement and input. For me, one of the major conclusions presented at the Oujébougoumou meeting was the plan to create a joint Cree-government working group to work actively to identify appropriate remedial measures and take the necessary steps for their implementation – and I didn’t think that these recommendations came through clearly in the articles in the Nation.

3.    It is important to keep in mind the legal framework within which this work will have to be done. As a general rule, at the closed mines where the land title has been returned to the government, it is the government itself that has the full control of and responsibility for the sites. The work of assessing these mine sites and of assessing the need for remedial action can go ahead, and we need to plan and move ahead quickly with the field work – in close collaboration with Oujébougoumou. One of our first tasks, therefore, is to clarify the status and condition of these mine sites.

4.    The Copper Rand, Principale and Joe Mann sites present other challenges which should be understood; they are also the subject of litigation initiated by the Cree against Campbell Resources. These mines, and their mills, are no longer in operation but Campbell Resources is still responsible for them. However, this company is in serious financial difficulty, and has sought protection from creditors using ‘The Companies Creditor Arrangement Act’.  It is a complex situation, but it will be difficult to act at these sites until the financial situation of Campbell Resources becomes clear. If the company does declare bankruptcy and the mining title is returned to the Quebec government, we will then be able to work directly with the government officials to assess the sites and work on a remediation and control strategy. This remains the objective. This is a subject which will need to be tracked closely in the coming months, but which is beyond the immediate control of the Steering Committee. The Oujébougoumou representatives on the Steering Committee have worked hard to develop an effective working relationship with Quebec to lay the groundwork for effective site remediation and restoration and I believe that we have the necessary good will from the government representatives.

5.    During the afternoon session on March 31, several members of the Oujébougoumou community expressed concerns both about human health and the health of fish populations in relation to mining. I do not wish to comment here on human health, but it is worth stressing that the Steering Committee travelled to Oujébougoumou to discuss the results of the ecological risk assessment only. Human health had been the subject of a distinct study in 2002 and 2003 with its own research team. The basic framework which that team developed for Oujébougoumou and Nemaska has since then been extended to a survey of all of the Cree communities, which should be completed in 2009. There will be useful opportunities to compare findings from different Cree communities and, if necessary, plan for additional testing or assessment.

I hope that this note will help by providing additional context for the meetings in Oujébougoumou on March 30 and 31.

Alan Penn
Science Advisor
Cree Regional Authority