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First Nations Chief Fears Site C Will Increase Mercury Poisoning of Fish

West Moberly First Nation Chief Roland Willson said the day his nine-year-old son caught a nine pound fish, a dolly varden, in the Williston reservoir should have been a proud moment.

“He caught it in the reservoir but because of what I know about the mercury we couldn’t eat it,” Willson said. “He had snagged it so bad we had to take it home and it ended up going in the garbage.”

The Williston reservoir, resulting from the creation of the W.A.C Bennett dam, is known for containing high levels of mercury, a common feature of large man-made reservoirs containing high levels of organic material. In 2000, the B.C. government issued a fish consumption advisory for the reservoir.

Although that day of fishing on the reservoir was seven years ago, Willson has a new reason to fear those high levels of mercury: the recent approval of the Site C dam.

Willson said he’s concerned the Site C dam will result in similarly contaminated reservoir water.

“Site C is proposed for the same river,” Willson said. “There’s no reason to think this problem is not going to transfer.”

According to an internal mercury assessment for the Site C reservoir prepared by BC Hydro for Health Canada, “one of the known impacts of reservoir creation is the increase in fish mercury concentration and the real and perceived effects on human health.”

The Site C dam project will flood a 100 square kilometre region that is rich in organic materials. According to the Site C mercury assessment, the flooding of such areas contributes to the creation of methyl mercury, a form of mercury that bioaccumulates in the food chain through fish:

The flooding of soils and vegetation to create reservoirs during hydroelectric development provides a new source of nutrients and inorganic mercury for bacteria in the flooded environment. Bacterial decomposition of this new organic material increases the natural rate of methyl mercury creation in the new reservoir which can last for several years. Ultimately, this causes methyl mercury concentrations to increase in water, plankton, aquatic insects, and fish. In Canada, the phenomenon of increased methyl mercury concentrations in the environment and especially in fish as a result of reservoir creation has been well documented, especially in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

The West Moberly First Nation recently sampled 57 fish taken from the Crooked River, a migration route directly connected to the Williston reservoir.

They found 98 per cent of the samples contained mercury levels that exceeded provincial guidelines.

Willson held up a Hershey’s Kiss chocolate. “See this? Our study shows that women of childbearing age, toddlers and the elderly should not eat more than that (amount of fish) a day. That’s how much mercury is in there.”

He said he’s very concerned the construction of the Site C dam will further threaten his Nation’s ability to consume their traditional foods.

“This is our salmon. We don’t have salmon up there. The bull trout, the lake trout, the dolly varden — they have lots of fat content, you smoke them, you dry them, we can them, you throw that fish on the fire at the cabin, barbeque and cook it up with onions."

“It tastes pretty good. So we thought.”

Willson said the B.C. government is arguing Site C is needed to create power for B.C. homes.

“This power is not needed for homes. That’ a lie,” he said.

“This power is not for homes, it’s for development. They need power for LNG and for all the mines up there.”

The B.C. government is aggressively pursuing development of natural gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities to supply gas to Asian markets.

Willson said he is committed to fighting against the Site C dam’s approval. His nation is working with RAVEN Trust, a legal aid group which is currently fundraising to support the West Moberly Nation’s legal challenge.

“There’s a workable solution for creating an alternative,” Willson said, saying geothermal is a known option BC Hydro has been criticized for not giving full consideration.

“Canada is supposed to be a world leading country in technology,” he said. “There’s got to be a way to use gas here, without flooding our valley.”

“Site C started as a $7 million dollar bad idea. It’s now a $9 billion dollar mistake,” Willson said. “By the time they’re done it’s going be a $12 billion dollar nightmare. Our grandkids are going to have to deal with it.”

Aboriginal Health Risk Assessment of Mercury in Bull Trout Harvested from the Crooked River, British Columb…

Image Credit: Carol Linnitt

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That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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