Due to the heavy rainfall in the last two months, a dyke – that had surrounded a settling pond containing tailings from the now-defunct Opimiska mine located between Chapais and Waswanipi – burst at the end of June.
The breach washed away nearby roads and spilled into Slam Creek that flows into the Obatigaumau River which, in turn, flows into the Waswanipi River.
At first there was as sense of panic among Waswanipi residents that both Waswanipi Lake and Waswanipi River would be contaminated as a result of the incident but after initial testing the tailings proved to be harmless.
“The biggest physical impact of the spill was that it wiped out the road and caused a lot of erosion along Slam Creek. It was a significant event. If somebody had been driving along the road when it happened they might have been killed,” said Brian Craik of the Cree Regional Authority.
According to Craik, though there was an initial scare about high copper, iron and zinc levels in Slam Creek, the problem was not as bad as it was originally thought. Since the incident, Environment Canada has done a lot of testing and it seems the contents of the metals are diluting over time.
“It’s not a danger to human health and the further downstream you go, by
the time you get to the Waswanipi River, the levels are way under the Quebec standard for such minerals,” said Craik.
At the same time, Waswanipi residents became concerned because surrounding the settling pond are old covered dumpsites that were used by Chapais up until 20 years ago. The fear was that toxins from these dumpsites could have leaked into the settling pond.
Since governmental bodies were testing specifically for toxic levels of minerals as a result of the spill, some residents started wondering why they were not testing for other substances that could have leaked into the pond, especially since dead fish were spotted in the area.
Though there are several theories why the fish died ranging from the impact of the dyke bursting to possible contamination to the dead fish being the result of a fisherman throwing them back into the river, nothing has been conclusive.
Waswanipi Deputy Chief Paul Gull even went fishing on July 6 to investigate. He took his boat from the Waswanipi River to Waswanipi Lake and said he didn’t see any dead fish in the area.
“The ones I found were caught on my hook,” said Gull who felt confident enough to eat the fish he caught that day as he believes the diversion systems in place are sufficient to keep Waswanipi’s waters clean.
According to Craik, testing the waters for organic compounds was not deemed necessary by Alan Penn and Ginette Lajoie, both scientists who work for the CRA.
Despite this, Paul Dixon of the Cree Trappers Association, who noticed a foul smell emanating from Slam Creek, is not as confident as Penn and Lajoie. Concerned enough to contact the Nation, Dixon wrote, “The industrialized world is destroying us and hunting societies around the world. If we cannot see or feel what is destroying us today, how can we live tomorrow? We must win today so that we can live tomorrow.”
After careful deliberation at a general assembly meeting in regards to the bursted dyke and the fallout from it, Waswanipi residents decided to have their environmental administrator look into hiring an independent company to monitor the water in the area. Both the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment will also be monitoring the effects of the incident.
According to Craik, if anything positive came out of this incident it was the perfect opportunity to test the relationship between the Grand Council CRA, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources. Since none of the departments had worked together before in a time of crisis, communication between the environmental administrators and governmental environment officials was not as efficient as it could have been.
“There wasn’t much of a pre-established network so as soon as one party found out they phoned up the others and the system got put together for the first time,” said Craik.
All parties have since agreed to work on improving communication so that should another incident like this one arise, a more efficient system will be in place to handle it.