Two Quebec environment ministry studies obtained by the Nation clearly show that Ouje-Bougoumou Crees have a reason to be concerned over mining contamination of local waterways. What’s more, despite promising O-J residents quick action on the issue, the reports show that the Quebec government has been aware of the problem since 1998.
The two documents, entitled Metal Concentrations in Fish and Sediments in lakes aux Dores, Chibougamau, Obatogamau and Waconichi in 2002 (by Denis Laliberte) and Metal, PCB, Dioxin and Furan Concentrations in Fish and Sediments from Four Lakes in Northern Quebec in 2001 (by Denis Laliberte and Gaby Tremblay), were obtained from the office of U.S. Senator John Sununu (R-New Hampshire). Senator Sununu had demanded the information in a letter to Quebec Premier Jean Charest last spring.
Sample after sample recorded in the studies show readings for dangerous heavy metals to be many times higher than that allowed for under Canadian law. For example, arsenic readings in samples from Dore Lake were as high as 44 times the allowable limit under the Canadian Environmental Quality Guidelines Interim Sediment Quality Guidelines of the Protection of Aquatic Life (commonly known as the ISQG line).
The Probable Effect Level (or PEL) for many toxins are also routinely exceeded. The PEL line displays a reading at which the sample is extremely toxic and should not even be touched with bare skin.
In all, 18 out of 26 samples exceeded ISQG for arsenic, 20 of the 26 copper samples exceeded ISQG, 18 for nickel, six for lead and 15 for zinc. Only 17 samples were taken for chromium (with five in excess) and cadmium (15 exceeded).
No sampling was done for cyanide even though it is used extensively in gold mining. The Grand Council report prepared by Covel and Masters documented cyanide contamination in fish, sediment, tailings and water.
The lakes included in the study are heavily used by Cree communities for sustenance fishing and by other residents of the James Bay region for sport fishing. In particular, Chibougamau and Dore lakes, which are home to many mining sites, host significant trout holes along the retaining walls of mine tailings sites.
The levels of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, chromium, iron, nickel, cobalt and zinc found near mining operations in the region strongly suggest that the gold and copper mines are responsible for the contamination.
Laliberte writes that on Riviere Nemenjiche, a tributary draining a mining site, “the differences observed [in] downstream and upstream sediments suggest that this industry could be responsible for increases in metal levels.”
For Chibougamau Lake, Laliberte found copper concentrations 6.6 times the Probable Effect Level, which is the level that practically guarantees aquatic organisms will be contaminated. In Waconichi Lake, however, which is far from mining activity and was thus used as a control lake, very low metal levels were found.
The Quebec government documents show the Quebec Environment Ministry has been collecting data since 1998. The data revealed heavy metal contamination in excess of PEL up to 3.5 kilometres downstream from the tailings. The reports noted that a minimum of 40.6 cubic tonnes of contaminated waste had been dumped into Chibougamau and Dore lakes and that dumping continues today.
The 2002 document states, “These levels exceed the criteria of probable effect and represent a potential risk for aquatic organisms,” for the Nemenjiche River and Obatagamau Lakes.
Furthermore, the same study notes that, “The analyses of mine tailings taken from the Eaton Bay, Copper Rand, and Principale waste sites show that concentrations of the above metals (with the exception of cadmium which was not measured) were all present at levels likely to be a source of contamination for the aquatic environment.”
The Quebec government documents, as chilling as they are, are incomplete. Senator Sununu’s office analyzed the documents and found that the six most contaminated sites were not even tested for chromium, cadmium, selenium, strontium and beryllium.
Public health alerts over eating fish from these waters have been issued in the past. The James Bay regional health and social services centre warned against consuming fish from Dore and Chibougamau lakes in 2001, advising against consumption of more than two fish a month of lake trout longer than 50 cm or weighing over I kg, walleye longer than 50 cm or northern pike longer than 70 cm. It also warned pregnant women and children under six against eating any trout or northern pikes larger than these sizes.
This story started five years ago, but its roots go back to the 1950s with the arrival of mining firms in the Chibougamau region. It was in 2000, long after Ouje-Bougoumou residents had begun asking game wardens and the government if anything was wrong with the fish and were told nothing was amiss, that someone finally listened.
That someone was Christopher Covel, an American geologist, who happened to be visiting the area. Someone asked him if mine tailings could make fish sick. He took some sediment samples home for analysis. What he discovered shocked and frightened him. The levels of cancer-causing heavy metal toxins leaching into the environment from mine tailings far exceeded allowable limits.
At that point, the Grand Council of the Crees hired Covel and New Hampshire scientist Roger Masters to carry out a full-scale study of the problem. Covel and Masters delivered their report in September 2001. It found sediment and water readings for arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc to be far above allowable limits set by the federal government. They also found readings for barium, cyanide, selenium and silver, which have no allowable limit. All these substances are toxic to human health. Not surprisingly, Covel and Masters also found metal contamination in fish and human head hair of the Ouje-Bougoumou Crees.
“It makes the Love Canal look like a dirty back yard,” Covel told the Montreal Gazette at the time.
Some, however, questioned the results and complained that Covel was “grandstanding.” So the Grand Council brought in other scientists, Eric Dewailly of the Quebec Environment Ministry and McMaster University professor Evert Nieboer, to oversee his work. Their report, funded mainly by the Quebec Ministry of Health and the National Public Health Institute, said that there might be a problem with the fish and some animals but humans were safe. An environmental study was promised at the same time, but until now, has not been seen.
The late Joseph Shecapio-Blacksmith, Ouje-Bougoumou’s Environmental Officer at the time, was unconvinced that there was no danger to human health. He was doing everything he could to try to get the problems of heavy metal toxins from mine tailings publicized.
Shecapio-Blacksmith met with New Hampshire Senator John Sununu, a Republican. It would be the breakthrough he was looking for, but sadly he would never see it come to fruition before he died in November 2003. Sununu, impressed with Shecapio-Blacksmith and the response of his New Hampshire constituents, would take this issue to heart.
Thus, in a letter to Quebec Premier Jean Charest earlier this year, Sununu requested a long-overdue Quebec government study that was supposed to settle this issue once and for all. Documents that the Crees of Ouje-Bougoumou were promised over a year and a half ago were sent to his office. A call to his Washington, DC, office resulted in those documents and more being forwarded to the Nation.
The results are elegant. As the Quebec government report’s authors write, “For sediments, the arsenic, copper, and zinc levels measured by Covel and Masters (2001) were similar to those measured in the study.”
There is anger over the fact this vital information had been withheld from the people it most affected, the Ouje-Bougoumou Cree. Calls to the appropriate Quebec government ministries have not been returned at press time, but we hope to have answers from them in future issues of the Nation.
The co-author of the 2001 report that originally raised concerns over mining contamination near Ouje-Bougoumou is suggesting the Quebec government has covered up evidence that the Crees are at risk from toxic heavy metals.
Dartmouth College Professor Roger Masters of New Hampshire has examined the studies sent to Senator Sununu’s office. In a press release, he says the content “raises serious problems consistent with an attempt to cover-up the extent of harm.”
In particular, Masters takes aim at a study of contamination in Ouje Bougoumou residents ordered by the Quebec government after he and Christopher Covel first revealed the extent of heavy metals in nearby waterways. He notes that the report by Eric Dewailly and Evert Neiboer concluded that the residents of Ouje-Bougoumou are not at risk of systematic exposure to toxins from mining.
Masters says their methodology was inappropriate. Dewailly and Neiboer selected eight specific “contaminants of concern” and measured them one at a time. Since there were no statistical differences between Nemaska, the control community, and Ouje-Bougoumou they concluded there was no problem.
But Masters says comparing averages for toxins levels from two different communities is like assessing lead pollution in Montreal by comparing lead averages from a population sample of residents of all over Ontario and Quebec. The average of a large number of people from a large area can swamp dangerous levels of a few people in the polluted area.
The second problem, Masters says, is that studying one toxin at a time ignores the effects of two or more toxins occurring together. An example of this would be saying the effects of a few drinks is okay while ignoring the narcotics the person consumed at the same time. The effects of just drinking and combining alcohol with drugs are different and this is true with different combinations of toxins.
Thus, Masters says, “the methods of Dewailly and Neiboer seem designed to deluge the reader with detailed statistics even though the results don’t add up.”
Masters also notes that the two new studies, which give great space to mercury contamination, are also flawed. When looking at data and trying to determine whether or not mine tailings are responsible one has to discount the mercury data. A lot of attention is paid to it but it has next to nothing with to do with mine tailings. In this case the disproportionate attention paid to it may be seen as a major red herring. Mercury was only used for a two-year period in one mine in the Chibougamau region. The regular methods of mining involved arsenic and cyanide, among others.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE? ONE EXAMPLE
The case of the 120-year-old Bunker Hill and Mining and Smelting Complex near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, shows that huge problems of environmental contamination can be corrected -but it’s expensive.
American authorities were just as hard to convince of the need for remedial action as they are in Quebec, but they eventually admitted there was a problem. Then it became a matter of studying the problem and devising a way to clean it up.
Bunker Hill was responsible for millions of cubic metres of contaminated slag, tailings and other mine waste. It also released large-scale airborne lead deposition. Public health monitoring of Silver Valley children in the mid-1970s revealed the highest blood-lead levels ever recorded.
Following the site’s addition to the National Priorities List in 1983, its owner, Gulf Resources, declared bankruptcy. After receiving limited funds through bankruptcy proceedings, the US Environmental Protection Agency turned to the Superfund trust fund to provide the resources for cleaning up the contaminated complex. Since 1995, nearly one million cubic yards of contaminated soils have been buried.
There are lessons to be learned from the Bunker Hill Mine, however. Chris Christopherson, owner of an independent laboratory, said there is a potential for things going wrong if you don’t know what you want and how to achieve it. He expressed a concern that media would blow the situation out of the water and worry people needlessly.
But he also said that if there was a problem that some things needed to be done before you even thought of cleaning up; especially defining what resulted from mining toxins or contamination.
“You have to determine whether or not there is a definite threat to human life or the environment,” said Christopherson.
After determining the interactions in the environment where the toxins are present and active, you must come up with a plan and stick to it. “You must ask what you want to achieve and get it in writing. Be clear of your goals,” said Christopherson.
For instance, he asked, how does the toxin dissolve in the environment and how does it interact with the species that live in the contaminated zone?
In the meantime, $3 billion US has been spent on cleaning up the environment around Coeur d’Alene. It means a lot of high-paying jobs that reflect the amounts of money available for the clean-up.
This is exactly where we have to be careful, said Christopherson. He warned we should look at effective cleanup methodology.
“There’s a potential for graft on a large scale. There are stories I could tell you,” said Christopherson. “It’s a waste of money if you aren’t achieving any increase in quality of life either for people, animals or the environment.”