Driving from Waswanipi recently, Brian Craik, the Cree Regional Authority’s Director of Federal Relations, noticed a few frontend loaders digging up a settling pond near Slam Creek.
Last June, the road Craik was driving on had been washed out after a tailings pond at the defunct Opimiska copper mine burst under the pressure of an abnormally heavy spring thaw. This also caused the contents of the tailings pond – large amounts of metals and the toxic chemicals used in their extraction – to flow into Slam Creek which feeds into the Waswanipi River.
At the time of the incident, many Waswanipi residents did not know what to think. Though they do not draw their water supply from the river, it is where they fish.
The Quebec government became involved since the defunct mine is their responsibility, having absolved the mine’s owners, Inmet, of responsibility many years before. At the time some water samples were taken in an attempt to assess what exactly the tailings pond had leached in.
Also, attempts were made by government workers to contain the contaminants with a series of three “check dams,” or rock beds, in order to keep the tailings pond’s contents from flowing further.
Both efforts however were sub par according to Christopher Covel, a U.S. geologist and investigative scientist, who worked with the Crees nine years ago when a similar spill happened in Chibougamau.
Covel, also an environmental activist, has since worked (frequently free of charge) on and off for the Crees in trying to prevent another mishap like Chibougamau from happening. So when the Opimiska incident happened, he became concerned.
Back in July, Craik told the Nation that though there was an initial panic in Waswanipi about water quality, there was absolutely no danger to human health. He also stated that there was no threat of arsenic contamination and that the government was handling the situation.
Not so, said Covel, who after reviewing data from a sample collected by the Quebec Department of Environment in October, found proof of arsenic contamination. Covel also witnessed firsthand that the government’s attempts at containing the contaminants prior to the winter months were insufficient as grey water was flowing right through the check dams.
Covel has told the Nation on several occasions that the tests Craik said proved the water was fine were insufficient. The tests were done exclusively to detect copper, iron and zinc and not the chemicals used in their extraction or other chemicals that could have been used at the mine site. Plus, the samples that were taken and tested were of surface water; no tests were made of the sediment beds where many contaminants would most likely be found.
At the time Covel stated, “You can’t find what you are not looking for.” Though Craik might now agree with him on that level, it is the only level they see eye-to-eye on.
When asked about the water “contamination” at present, Craik cautioned the use of the word as he believed it brought about unnecessary panic.
“The truth of it is that there is very little evidence of contamination so far,” said Craik, explaining that if there was a real threat to human health then there would be more than just the one dead fish found that day.
Craik, an anthropologist by training, went on to give the example of the arsenic that Covel detected in Slam Creek and said that it is something that humans consume daily in small quantities in everything from fish to garden vegetables. Since this “biological arsenic” is a component of an organic molecule and as a result it is not dangerous, there is no evidence that it is carcinogenic or detrimental to human health. What he did say was dangerous was “free radical arsenic,” something that was not detected in the water.
In Craik’s eyes, the clean-up has not been as quick as he would have liked it, which he sees is the result of a government failure. Though he felt that the Crees and the Quebec government had agreed last summer to work together in problem solving, Craik now finds himself frustrated by the government’s lack of manpower involved in the situation.
“In the whole of Eeyou Istchee, the Department of Environment does not have enough people in the region and neither does the Department of Natural Resources. So when there are strictures put on mining projects and when things occur that require monitoring, those departments are really pushed to get the work done,” said Craik.
Though the Department of Natural Resources is currently in charge of the recovery plan, in Craik’s opinion not only have they been slow but they are also faulted for not working with the Crees in developing or executing the plan.
As for Covel, Craik did not have kind words for him or the monitoring and prevention plan that he had presented to Waswanipi Chief John Kitchen back in late 2008.
“Covel is out to scare the population so that they will hire him and pay him several millions of dollars. Nothing proves that he is right and the bulk of the evidence suggests that he is wrong,” said Craik.
Craik was also critical of Covel’s move to involve Jody Kubitz an ecotoxicologist from Entrix Inc, an environmental and natural resource management consulting firm specializing in water testing. In the fall, Kubitz traveled to Waswanipi with Covel to conduct field tests that were positive for arsenic.
According to Covel and Kubitz, they both concurred that there was no “bulk of evidence”, for the simple reason that “nobody collected any data.” There is no evidence to examine. A single sample from Slam Creek showed that several materials were present at concentrations that exceeded Quebec’s standards for the protection of aquatic life.
“The limitations of the Quebec government are not the Crees’ problem,” said Covel. “This situation demonstrates the need for the Crees to have additional scientific expertise in the communities.”
The recovery plan that Covel presented to Kitchen would have
provided for training for the Crees to be able to act as their own environmental department and have a hands-on approach similarly to a plan that he submitted nine years ago after the Chibougamau incident.
Both Covel and Kubitz were also extremely alarmed at Craik’s perception of arsenic in regards to their October findings.
“Arsenic was present at a concentration greater than the aquatic life standard. No comments regarding human health were made in the proposal. For the record, any material safety data sheet identifies arsenic as a known human carcinogen,” said Covel.
According to Covel, his plan would not have dinged the Crees for “millions” as it was all inclusive and stipulated it was the Quebec government that was responsible for such costs since it is, in turn, responsible for the incident. Covel also suggested that testing for further chemicals, such as PCBs among other elements and compounds, was vital to the recovery plan. Craik was quick to dismiss this as unnecessary and costly.
While Craik contended that the Crees would need to monitor the affected waterways and further research needed to be done, he adamantly dismissed the “contamination” that might have occurred due to the incident throughout the interview.
Kubitz however did not agree with Craik on this issue.
“Copper is very poisonous to aquatic life, and was present at elevated concentrations in tailings and Slam Creek water. There are no data to determine if the copper is in an inert form, or a toxic form. Moreover, the conditions at the failed impoundment when the proposal was written suggested that tailings could be released to Slam Creek for many years, and persist for decades,” said Kubitz.
According to Kubitz, the other tests that Covel suggested were based on research done on the historical operations at the site. The proposed data would have been used to determine which chemicals to continue to monitor and which ones could be ruled out early in the investigation.
According to Craik, the Waswanipi Band Council will soon be calling for tenders to hire a firm to manage the incident site. For as much as Craik agreeds that more needs to be done, that this should have happened sooner and that the Crees themselves should be involved every step of the way, this is the only common ground the concerned parties share.