After a dyke burst at the defunct Opemiska mine at the end of June, causing a mine tailings pond to spill into Slam Creek just down the waterways from Waswanipi, community members had concerns for the quality of their water supply. And this, despite reassurances from the Cree Regional Council and the Ministry of Natural Resources.

As Slam Creek flows into the Waswanipi River by way of the Obatigaumau River, some Waswanipi residents became suspicious of the immediate test results showing normal levels of copper, iron and zinc. Another source of worry concerned a covered dumpsite only 1,000 feet away from the tailings pond, which was used by Chapais hospital until sometime in the 1970s.

At a general assembly meeting in Waswanipi held just after the incident, the town decided to engage a private water-testing consultant to see if there was any actual contamination that went undetected by the MNR.

According to Waswanipi Environmental Director John Gull, “the MRN seem to be taking control of the situation. The Cree think that they are being blindfolded by the government because of that.”

Though Gull also said that some locals did not feel confident with the MNR conducting the clean up from the spill because the government “is just covering up their mistakes,” he did not agree with them.

Water samples to be tested by a private lab were collected July 16 at various points downstream from the spill and all the way to Old Waswanipi Post. The water was tested for various metals and arsenic that could have resulted from the spill. The results from the both the MNR’s testing and Waswanipi’s private consultant testing came up almost identical, Gull said, even though the testing was done in different areas.

Gull felt that some of the suspicion on the part of Waswanipi residents could have resulted from a water testing scandal that happened years ago when another mine tailings spill happened on the Chibougamau River. At the time the government announced that the water was clean, but US-based geologist and investigative scientist Christopher Covel proved otherwise by finding test results that showed high levels of arsenic.

Gull believes the incident might have contributed to doubt among Waswanipi residents. In an interview, Covel explained some of the reasons that residents may have a right to feel doubtful. “You can sample an area that has had a catastrophic failure of a mine tailing pond, but if you don’t sample the right locations you are not going to get good data.”

It was Covel’s opinion that the specific contaminated zones in particular needed to be sampled. According to Gull they were not. As mine tailings are “chock-full” of contaminants, Covel is certain that there could be contamination still out there.

“If you sample 100 metres away from where the tailings pond failed and you sample that water, chances are it is going to be non-detect for any contaminants because you are sampling fresh water and it’s already been flushed out as it’s been a couple of days or weeks and it’s all running clean on the top,” said Covel. “But, if you go downstream or what is called down gradient and sample the water and or the sediment, it is going to have contamination.”

Gull admitted that no sediment samples were taken during the testing. “There is no use for us to try and compete with those people (government bodies) by spending money and hiring consultants of our own if we are going to get the same results,” he added. “That is what the Grand Council and the CRA are telling me. They said if you are going to start doing that you are going to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars finding nothing of actual value. They said quit wasting your money there, as long as those people are willing to cooperate, you should cooperate with them too.”

Gull said that he was advised by the Quebec environment ministry that there would be a fair amount of turbidity in the water as a result of the waste removal. As Waswanipi’s water source is from the ground, Gull was told there would be “absolutely” no threat to drinking water.

As for the marine life, “it probably wouldn’t affect the fish,” said Gull. “According to [the ministry], there are a lot of diversions in that river. So these fish, when the turbidity gets too high there, they can go into another part of the river. They will stay in the diversions until the water is back to normal and the fish will keep travelling like that.”

The clean up from the spill is expected to take up to one year.