Though the province of Quebec has its own steering committee mandated to assess the contamination and conduct a cleanup on sites near Oujé-Bougoumou that have been affected by several mining operations, the community has decided to get more involved.
According to Oujé-Bougoumou’s Traditional Pursuits Director Norman Wapachee, Chief Louise Wapachee and her Council have decided to create a local steering committee in order to resolve the situation and move towards restoring the area.
For the past decade, the community has been negotiating with Quebec to clean up a series of sites that became contaminated through mining operations in the region over several generations.
In 2002, the community became aware that Oujé-Bougoumou’s waterways had become significantly contaminated to the extent that marine life was damaged as a result of these mining operations when American scientist Christopher Covel released a study detailing the damage.
“One of the reasons for this (local committee) was to have the community of Oujé-Bougoumou involved in addressing the contamination issue in a more meaningful way where we could integrate the tallymen and address their concerns. The Chief and Council created this to help out with the situation and the Quebec steering committee,” said Wapachee.
The regional Quebec steering committee is comprised of scientists, governmental departments and Crees. It includes members of the Cree Regional Authority, Public Health, the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs, the mining companies including Campbell Resources, the Ministry of Natural Resources as well as several community members and scientists Peter G.C. Campbell and Covel.
In early spring, Oujé-Bougoumou created its own committee comprised of Paul Workman, Chief Louise Wapachee, Local Environment Administrator Annette Shecapio-Blacksmith, Community Representative Bethany Mianscum, Norman Wapachee and Covel. Wapachee said they will be appointing a specific tallyman to the group but that they also welcome the participation of any of Oujé’s tallymen who are interested.
Over the last decade, the regional group’s main function has been to study and assess the mining sites and the areas that seem to be the most affected by the contamination. They include Chibougamau Lake, Dore Lake, Obatagamou Lake and Nemindji Lake.
It was only within the last year however that the regional group made the decision to move ahead with the actual cleanup and begin to assess what needs to be done to restore the area. Throughout the cleanup process, studies will be continuously conducted on the sites to keep track of the progress.
Wapachee said though he is glad that this is underway, the community has felt some frustration over the last decade because it has taken so long to get to this point. Part of the delay, he explained, has resulted from the difficulty that the regional committee has faced in getting all of the concerned parties together for meetings because it is such a large group.
The Oujé committee met for the first time just after Goose Break to become familiarized with the studies that have been conducted on the sites and the updates to them since 2002 and to get an understanding of the roles they would be playing in the restoration endeavour.
Wapachee said the local group could oversee what needs to be done with the cleanup and give direction to the Quebec committee on what needs to happen as the Crees are more familiar with the area, having managed the traplines for generations.
In late June, Wapachee assembled a crew of local tallymen, several members of the local committee, Covel and his employer at Hillier Associates, who specialize in field of contaminated water cleanup, to visit the mining sites to identify the affected ones and prioritize them for cleanup.
“The tallymen were quite happy about it as this was the first time they were able to come out with us to do these analyses and have them involved in checking out the sites and identifying the ones that need to be cleaned up,” said Wapachee.
But, what they discovered when visiting the sites and by taking aerial photos of the affected areas was not what they were anticipating.
Wapachee said some of the sites, particularly the Principal Mine, were a mess of open tailings ponds and abandoned facilities.
At the Principal Mine, the Oujé group even noticed that some workers had made an attempt to cover up highly contaminated mine slurry with debris from the mine.
“By the looks of it, they were slowly covering things up and this is not going to help anything. The Principal Mine is where the Campbell Mine is and by the looks of it, they are just bulldozing things and not checking the toxic soil where the tailings pond was,” said Wapachee.
Wapachee said he was ultimately disappointed by what he saw as the cleanup is going to require that all of the toxic material be removed from the site. Covering the sites up with debris is counterproductive and will only make the job more difficult.
What was even more disturbing to Wapachee and his crew is that they cannot figure out who sent a crew out to do this work as the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) took control of the site in May. The MNR however has not begun cleanup work on these sites.
According to Nicolas Bégin, a media relations representative from the MNR, since May the only action they have taken has been to hire a firm, Golder and Associates, to assess what the cleanup will entail and assess the safety of the access road to the Principal Mine.
Outside of that, Bégin said the only work that they have completed was the installation of a pumping system, the placement of large rocks at the entrance of the mining site for security purposes and an assessment of the quality of the rocks used at the entrance.
Bégin said he had no knowledge of any of the other activities at the Principal Mine and was unaware of who could have been covering up mine slurry with debris but that it was certainly not anyone acting on behalf of the MNR.
While Wapachee said he was extremely distressed by what he and the members of the local group and tallymen witnessed on the sites and described what he saw as “unacceptable”, it is still a major priority for the local committee to maintain a positive working relationship with Quebec in this endeavor.
“What we want to do is maintain and if not improve our working relationship with Quebec based on mutual respect, trust and cooperation in addressing this issue. One of the things that we’re working on right now to do a power-point presentation with our findings for the regional steering committee co-chairs,” said Wapachee.
Wapachee said he is hoping to meet with members of the regional committee on July 13 to make this presentation and then head out to the sites the following day to have a look at what has transpired. At this time, he will also stress the need for Oujé community members to involved in developing a cleanup plan and benefiting from the economic spin-offs that will happen as a result of this.
At the same time, Wapachee said there is already concern within the community, particularly on the behalf of his Elder father, about the possibility of a vanadium mine opening up near Dore Lake, one of the areas most affected by the contamination.
While the Crees won a recent court decision to have their say in an application submitted by Lac Dore Mining Inc. to open up a mine in the area that would have a significant impact on fishery life, the idea of any further development has the Elder Wapachee nervous.
Paraphrasing his father’s statements made in Cree at the local steering-committee meeting, Wapachee said the following:
“I don’t feel comfortable with the proposed vanadium project because of the level of toxicity that it will release within the environment, within the sediments and the marine life on both Chibougamau and Dore lakes.
“I think the best approach is if you take a proper cleanup plan and clean up the place first. We can then look at the vanadium project once that is done because right now at this point I totally disagree with carrying out another mining project when we have not even already started to clean up this.”