A coal-mine expansion in the Canadian Rocky Mountains threatens the drinking water supply of the Mountain Cree-Smallboy Camp, where about 140 Indigenous people have been practising and maintaining their traditional spirituality, language and culture for the past half-century.
It takes several hours of driving on snow- and ice-covered gravel roads without cell service to reach the camp, which consists of a school, an ice rink and several hand-crafted houses nestled in the woods.
Teck Resources Ltd., a B.C.-based mining corporation, plans to expand its Cheviot Mine over the Cardinal Divide — a wide alpine ridge separating two major watersheds — to Redcap Mountain, just east of Jasper National Park, Alta.
Expanding across this divide extends the risks of selenium and nitrate contamination to the headwaters of the Cardinal River, a glacier-fed tributary to the Brazeau and North Saskatchewan Rivers.
The company’s proposal for the expansion is currently under review by the Alberta Energy Regulator.
The Mountain Cree-Smallboy Camp collects buckets of drinking water directly from the Cardinal River and harvests medicinal plants in the Redcap area.
Reinhart Roan, 61, an elder in the Mountain Cree-Smallboy Camp, told The Narwhal that camp leaders met with Teck to explain they are not opposed to all mining — but they asked that Teck limit the mining to an area that wouldn’t affect their drinking water.
“We’ve managed to stop industry from coming in between the two rivers, the Cardinal and Brazeau. There’s no oil, no clear-cutting and no mining between the two rivers. But now we’re being threatened by Teck,” Roan said.
“We’re not saying ‘stop digging here, you can’t dig anymore,’ that’s not what we’re saying. What we’re saying is ‘stay away from the water,’ ” Roan said. “Of all creation, water is the life source. We call water the Earth’s blood.”
‘We live downstream from them’
Public hearings during the initial Cheviot Mine permitting process made headlines in 1997 and 2000 because of the mine’s potential to disturb grizzly bear, elk and bird habitats in close proximity to Jasper National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The permit was approved, and mining began in 2004 for metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel.
In May 2018, Teck applied for permits to create five new open pits and three external mine dumps within the Cheviot area. These permits are currently under review by the Alberta Energy Regulator. Teck plans to start mining later in 2019 if the permits are approved, Chad Pederson, Teck’s communications planning manager, told The Narwhal by e-mail.
Since 2013, permitting and regulation for oil, gas and coal projects in Alberta has been handled by the regulator, a private body funded by fossil fuel industries. Concerned community members have 30 days to file statements of concern with the regulator after a permit has been filed, but it’s the company’s responsibility to notify affected communities about this deadline, a spokesperson for the regulator told The Narwhal by e-mail.
The Mountain Cree-Smallboy Camp sent a letter to the regulator expressing its concerns about the mine expansion on January 28, 2019, but the regulator dismissed it because it was received after the deadline of June 15, 2018.
The O’Chiese First Nation also filed a statement of concern last fall, which was dismissed because it too was received after the deadline. The O’Chiese wrote a letter of appeal, explaining that Teck failed to notify the community when the permit application was filed and failed to consult with the community when the initial mine was proposed.
Teck told The Narwhal it recognizes and respects the rights, cultures, interest and aspirations of Indigenous peoples.
“Teck has been engaging with the Mountain Cree since the mid-’90s with respect to activities at our Cardinal River operation and we are committed to continuing this engagement in the years ahead,” Pederson said in an e-mail.
The camp’s elders say they have repeatedly asked that Teck limit its mining to the other side of the Cardinal Divide because of the threats posed to their water supply.
“You don’t have to be educated or certified in any way to know they’re going to impact the water,” Roan said.“We live downstream from them.”
“All we’re trying to save is this water, because these are the last two rivers we can drink from. The North Saskatchewan, already you can’t. The major rivers, you can’t. Even the smaller rivers and creeks, you can’t. With all the water testing that they do, well, for us, all we have to do is look at the water,” he said.
“If there’s bugs in the water, that’s good water. If there are no bugs, don’t drink the water.”
Teck’s selenium problem
Experts have found high levels of pollutants downstream from many of the mines Teck operates in North America.
The Red Dog Mine in Alaska was the largest toxin-releasing facility in the United States in 2016. A federal court in Washington state found Teck guilty of dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of lead, arsenic, zinc and mercury into the Upper Columbia River since 1930. The company was forced to pay $8.25 million to the Colville Tribe for damages to the river.
Selenium and nitrate levels were far higher than recommended standards in rivers downstream of Teck’s five metallurgical coal mines in B.C.’s Elk Valley. Waste rock from the mines are exposed to air and water, allowing selenium and nitrates to flow into the streams, rivers and lakes.
Selenium is an essential trace element needed by the body at low levels, but at high levels can cause nervous system damage, changes to hair and fingernails, and kidney and liver tissue damage. One municipal water well and several private wells in Sparwood, B.C., were closed because selenium levels exceeded levels safe for drinking.
Erin Sexton, senior scientist at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake biological station, has been tracking the impacts of Teck’s mines on biodiversity in the Elk Valley for the past two decades.
“We found there were really high levels of selenium and nitrates that were significantly different than above the mines,” Sexton told The Narwhal. “The diversity of aquatic bugs was heavily impacted, it was significantly different just downstream. The contamination extended many kilometres downstream, into Montana and Idaho.”
Teck built a water-treatment facility to address the issue. But the facility, meant to remove high levels of selenium leached from the mine’s waste rock, ended up releasing a more bioavailable form of selenium, causing a major fish kill-off. Teck was fined $1.4 million for the fish kill in 2017.
“The Line Creek treatment plant converted selenium from a less toxic form to a more toxic form. Teck noticed higher levels of selenium just downstream and petitioned the B.C. government to shut down their own treatment plant,” Sexton said.
“That just highlights how they’re responsible for their own monitoring, they collect all the data. There isn’t transparency. All of the management is done by Teck.”
“Selenium is one of the most difficult contaminants for mining globally to manage,” she added, “Once it’s in contact with the water, you can’t get it out.”
Teck says its Line Creek Treatment plant is now operating successfully, they are constructing a second treatment facility at Fording River, and have implemented “saturated rock fill” — a water treatment technique the company’s scientists claim effectively removes selenium using “naturally occurring biological processes.”
Teck says it will conduct regular water quality monitoring at the proposed MacKenzie Redcap expansion to the Cheviot mine.
“Teck is fully committed to operating with any permit requirements and would conduct regular water quality and aquatic health monitoring in relation to [the MacKenzie Redcap project],” Teck’s Pederson said.
Alberta Environment conducted independent studies in the McLeod, Pembina and Smoky Rivers after concerns about selenium due to four pre-existing mines were raised during the initial Cheviot Mine hearings in 1997 and 2000.
According to the resulting report, selenium levels directly downstream of four coal mines operating in the area were as high as 47.1 micrograms per litre downstream of the mines from 1998 to 2000. The highest level recorded above the mines was 2.2 micrograms per litre.
The levels were far higher than the Alberta government’s environmental quality guideline for the protection of aquatic life that selenium not exceed two micrograms per litre. Alberta uses Health Canada’s guidelines for acceptable concentrations of selenium in drinking water, which has a detection limit for selenium of two micrograms per litre and a maximum acceptable concentration for total selenium of 50 micrograms per litre. British Columbia and the World Health Organization recommend selenium levels in drinking water not exceed 10 micrograms per litre.
Teck submitted its own water quality data along with its permit application that measured elevated levels of selenium at several locations on the McLeod River downstream of current Cheviot operations between 2006 and 2016. The highest level included in the report was 8.58 micrograms per litre, which exceeds the safe level for aquatic life, but remains below the maximum acceptable concentration for total selenium in drinking water.
The report acknowledged that the project has the potential to contribute to increased nitrate concentrations, increased concentrations of metals and non-metals, including selenium, and increased calcite deposition.
The expansion across the Cardinal Divide extends these risks to the headwaters of the Cardinal River.
Protecting spiritual sovereignty
For Roan and many camp members, this is about more than protecting their drinking water — it’s about protecting their way of life and ability to practice their spirituality, which is deeply rooted in their connection to the environment.
Roan’s father, Lazarus Roan, founded the camp in 1968 with the help of Chief Robert Smallboy. Roan had a vision to create a place where his community could learn to live off the land and with the elements, hold ceremonies and revitalize their language away from the reserve system.
Reinhart, who was 11 at the time, said that coming out to live off the land allowed him to forget about the trauma and disruption he experienced in Canada’s residential schools. For the past 50 years, the camp has been living out his father’s vision.
Families living at camp today use modern technology but choose to live in a way that’s connected to the water, the land and their natural laws. Some families have built passive solar houses with large windows that capture the heat of the sun, but most families use wood-burning stoves to heat their homes.
They chop wood every day, collect buckets of drinking water directly from the river, hold ceremonies, gather medicinal plants and hunt wild game in the forests and mountains between the Cardinal and Brazeau Rivers.
“The Redcap area has medicine that we use for diabetes and there is some cancer medicine up there. There are important herbs up there that we use. I’m a survivor of cancer with no treatment of any kind besides the power of creation, our language and the ceremony that we have,” Roan said.
While families get many staple foods from the stores in town, hunting wild game and foraging wild berries are an important part of life. An elk or moose can feed several families, and all parts of the animal are used — even the bone marrow is used to make bone broth. Families only take from nature what they need, nothing more.
Many years ago, wild carrots and potatoes could be harvested and there were plenty of animals to feed the community. But industry’s influence has expanded year after year, and “now places that were life-giving — full of medicinal plants, berries and clean water — central places that we needed as humanity…these areas that were needed, they’ve destroyed them,” Melvin Nadue, another community elder, told The Narwhal in December. Nadue passed away from cancer on Feb. 6 at the age of 69.
Roan, Nadue and other camp members hope their spiritual sovereignty will be respected by Teck — their ability to maintain and practice their spirituality on land their ancestors have inhabited for the past 10,000 years. But they’re concerned not only because the mine threatens the water, but because it could also destroy their medicinal plants and further disrupt elk and moose habitats.
“Part of the reason we came out here is to preserve the Cree ways of life and the Cree identity, our language and our connection to the land — and we do that by living with the elements and as one with nature, not by being in the press or having big political fights, so we’re very cautious about how to go about protecting our water,” Jason Zorthian, 38, who was born at the camp, told The Narwhal.
The late Nadue wanted the area’s spiritual and cultural significance to be shielded from the influence of industry.
“We’re trying to protect this area because we need it. Our kids are going to need it, my kids, my grandchildren will need this area for survival,” Nadue said. “I want this place protected. I want it to be left alone. I want it to be left alone as a God-given space where the natural law can be heard from.”
“Why did we create a Jasper National Park, a Banff National Park? Why can’t we create something like that for Indian people where they can preserve this identity?” he said.
“Maybe there are other people out there that wish to live like this, and they can come here, and it’ll be like a sanctuary.”