Carbon and caribou: why the Dene Tha’ are forging a plan to protect a northern Alberta lake
The nation is proposing the first Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area in the province to...
This is the second part of a two-part series on the impacts of the Mount Polley mine spill, four years later. Read part one of this investigation.
Kim Goldforth and I are standing on the shore of Quesnel Lake, at the very spot where the 2014 tailings spill ripped a new confluence into the side of this great fjord, when two men approach us from the land side.
We were just about to get back on Goforth’s fishing boat anchored at the outflow of Hazeltine Creek, but turn to face them instead. “Don’t take any shit from these guys,” said Goforth beneath his breath.
The two men are not Mount Polley staff as we expected, but a fisheries team from the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council, which represents four nearby First Nations communities. Four years after 25 million cubic metres of metal-rich tailings spilled into the lake, they are here to assess and observe fish, or in the case of Hazeltine creek in front of us, the lack thereof.
Fisheries coordinator Dave Feil is unimpressed by the millions of dollars the company has spent on landscaping and rebuilding the Hazeltine streambed. He is interested in the health of salmon that migrate up the Fraser and end up here, because these fish are intercepted all along the way by many First Nations.
Concerns about metal accumulations in the fish, which is subsistence food for so many, is top of mind. Unlike the nearby Gibraltar mine, owned and operated by Taseko Mines Ltd., he tells us, Mount Polley, owned by Imperial Metals, won’t pay for them to test and measure metal accumulations in the fish that live and rear in Quesnel Lake.
What about the return of more than 800,000 sockeye to the Quesnel Lake system this year? Isn’t that good news?
Feil laughed, “that’s the running joke right now: ‘Mount Polley has made everything so much better!’ ”
When I meet Doug Watt at the Likely Pub late later that night, there are points when he speaks in a low voice, so as not to be overheard by the owners, who support the mine. He estimates there are 25 to 30 families in the area that rely on Mount Polley for income, so his advocacy has come at a personal cost.
He worked for six years at Mount Polley as a metallurgist, preceded by stints at Gibraltar, Equity Silver and the Snip mine up in the Stikine. Now he is channeling 45 years of mining knowledge into his work for the Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake.
There are two things that rile Watt about the four-year anniversary of the Mount Polley disaster: mine owner Imperial Metals has not paid a cent in fines, and the province continues to allow the company to dump tailings effluent into the lake.
This disposal goes back to at least 2015 — occurring by direct releases into Hazeltine Creek, and through a pipeline that drains deep into the lake offshore of Hazeltine creek.
Watt says the company broke the terms of its April 2017 discharge permit almost immediately after it was issued. The B.C. Ministry of Environment confirmed that in a single month, the company was caught three separate times — exceeding maximum levels for dissolved aluminum, total copper and dissolved cadmium.
And since 2017, the province has issued the company six advisories and two warnings for various infractions, all in the form of written notices.
The permit clearly states that breaking the terms is a violation of the Environmental Management Act and “may lead to prosecution.” Under Section 120(6) of the Act, a permit holder breaking the rules is liable on conviction to a fine up to $1 million or imprisonment for up to six months, or both.
Meanwhile, the Administrative Penalties Regulation also specifies fines up to $40,000 per incident per day for failure to comply with a requirement of a permit.
But somehow, as with the spill itself, the company continues to break rules that on paper have strong deterrent penalties, but in practice have no teeth. At least so far.
A major preoccupation of the Concerned Citizens group is to get Mount Polley’s 2017 discharge permit revoked. One of the members, Christine McLean, has taken the fight to the Ministry of Environment’s Environmental Appeals Board. (She has a hearing in May 2019).
It was through this process that she learned Mount Polley has requested a relaxation of the permit rules for dumping effluent into the lake.
Mount Polley mine’s owner Imperial Metals did not respond to an interview request. The B.C. Ministry of Environment confirmed the company “contends the [existing] permit is too restrictive,” including how water is tested in the lake.
“It’s so demoralizing when the government allows the same company that let this disaster happen, to lay a pipe into the lake and discharge directly,” McLean told me later. “It’s adding insult to injury.”
Daniel Selbie, who heads up the lakes research program for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has been studying metal accumulations in Quesnel Lake fish. He says the 2017 decision to allow the discharge has made the task of determining the impacts of the 2014 spill on the wider ecosystem that much harder.
“Now there is water that’s been discharged into the west basin, which is coming from the mine, which has higher levels of metals,” he said. “It complicates the picture.”
He added that the decision to approve the discharges was made by the provincial government. “I can tell you many, I won’t say who, were opposed to it.”
The next morning, photographer Louis Bockner and I tour the disaster site and surrounding wilderness by road. At 10 a.m. our guide Lionel Guiltner pulls up to the Hazeltine Creek bridge crossing, riding a battered quad with a chainsaw strapped to the back.
It’s hard to imagine anyone knows the unmarked dirt roads and game trails that snake through this area like Guiltner, a former school teacher who lives nearby. Not even giant wind-blown trees across the trail stop him — he just fires up the chainsaw and moves on.
During the first months after the spill, Mount Polley staffers regularly stopped and threatened him as he rode through Crown land in this area. It never got violent, but their policy was to keep all eyes off the disaster site. This in turn earned Guiltner’s scorn. (Years later, he’s still indignant — “I have been wandering this area for 40 years!”)
None of the staffers in their giant pickups could chase him through the labyrinth system of trails he knows so well — if they turned him back at one spot, he would reappear somewhere else nearby, moments later.
“I’m not against mining…” he begins. This is a common preface in this area, but it’s not intended to mask environmentalist sympathies.
Mining is in the blood here: back before the B.C. mainland was a British colony, there were 5,000 people in nearby Quesnel Forks.
The two communities closest to the spill — Likely and Horsefly — wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the influx of mostly placer miners that began after 1860, when gold was found on the Horsefly River. In turn, fishing, ranching and forestry followed as sustaining industries, but mining continues to be the bread and butter.
Much of the area around Quesnel Lake and the Horsefly river has been worked over by miners over the last 150 years.
At one point the mainstem of the Quesnel river itself was dammed to excavate the riverbed for gold (salmon be damned), and just above Likely, the Bullion gold mine used pressurized water to erase entire mountainsides along the same river.
The Mount Polley gold and copper mine was built in 1997, filling an economic vacuum left by the decline of forestry. In the ’70s and ’80s there were three sawmills around Likely, but they are long gone. Guiltner, a retired school teacher, says there were 125 kids going to school in Likely in the 1980s; today there are 12.
So Mount Polley is a necessary neighbour to many, but locals like Guiltner also consider them a lousy neighbor. “They get away with too much,” he spits.
Inexplicably, our guide “cannot walk and talk at the same time,” which means we spend much of our tour standing around, but I’m surprised how much we get to see. First we visit the banks of Polley Lake, a large kidney-shaped lake directly west of the tailings dam.
When we’re confronted by pick-up trucks driven by Mount Polley staff, Guiltner announces his intention to go on through. They wave us through.
Eventually we’re standing at the base of the new tailings dam, a mountain of rock and earth, near the very point that breached in 2014. Back in late 2015, an investigation led by B.C.’s Chief inspector of Mines concluded that the dam failed because the strength and location of a layer of clay underneath our very feet was not taken into account in the design.
Guiltner shares a hopeful theory. Mount Polley has given the entire B.C. mining industry a black eye and it’s the peers of Imperial Metals that are most likely to influence the company behind the scenes, forcing them to do a better job of running their mine.
“If anybody is going to have an impact, it’s the mining fraternity,” he says, motioning up at the colossal tailings dam. “They are all watching this.”
We drive back to Likely along an old logging road that skirts Quesnel lake, just in time to make our meeting with a retired insurance executive and part-time placer miner named Craig Ritson.
He’s bought up all the placer mining claims closest to his home, for the fun of and profit of finding gold, but also to ensure no yahoos come in and mess the place up.
His huge, beautiful home is located on a street that runs right along Quesnel lake — this line of well-kept, water-front lots is the closest thing this area has to suburbia.
There was one reason Ritson chose this place to live back in 2002, he tells us: “It had the best water in the world.” Four years after the disaster, he continues to drink water from the lake, although doing this entails a lot more effort now.
Down in the basement Ritson shows us the mini water treatment plant he devised after the 2014 breach. Lake water flows into a pressure tank and through two filters, which trap particles 50 and two microns in size respectively. Then it goes through an ultraviolet treatment system to kill bacteria like fecal coliform.
All in, the system costs about $400 a month to run. The filters last anywhere from 17 days to 1.5 months depending on usage, before clogging up with fine gray silt.
While Ritson has stayed, his former neighbour and mining partner Doug Brassington, who was visiting during our interview, has moved to Salmon Arm. Water was the reason. After the spill, he felt it was impossible to trust the safety of the water. The only source of information was the company, he says, and by that point, he didn’t trust them.
Brassington misses life here immensely, but doesn’t regret leaving, especially since they started dumping effluent back into the lake.
“I know people all along this street who drink water from the lake. People still eat the fish. Who’s protecting those people? Nobody.”
Though retired, Ritson maintains the air of an executive, chairing a board meeting around a great dining table with panoramic views of the water and sprawling lakeside property.
“First Doug moved his family, then my son Brett…” he chokes up with emotion and can’t speak for a moment. “…now my son has moved his family away as well.”
He recovers quickly and becomes the executive again.
Running right through Horsefly, B.C., population 150, is the river of the same name, which in early September is packed with crimson sockeye.
As we watch from a bridge in town, a hyper-aggressive female chases off other fish, defending her egg nest (called a “redd”) to the end. The humpbacked males meanwhile will fertilize as many redds as they can until they die.
On the day I arrived here, Jacinda Mack was here too, to see the returning sockeye. Born and raised in her mother’s home community at Xat’sull near Williams Lake, Mack is one of the women behind Stand For Water — a project of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining, a movement to raise awareness of the threats mining poses to water in the Pacific northwest.
Her mother, former Xat’sull Chief Bev Sellars, launched a private prosecution against the Mount Polley owners, a case that was killed by the province in January 2018. But that’s not the end of it: Mack tells me the Xat’sull First Nation and others from the Secwepemc, as well as Tsilhqot’in and St’at’imc First Nations have all filed suits against the company.
“All are waiting on the ongoing [federal government] criminal investigation to see if any culpability or evidence will be disclosed that may impact their legal actions against the company.”
The Mount Polley disaster had one notable positive effect on the world, according to Mack.
“Before the disaster people were largely unaware about anything to do with mining. It was out of sight and out of mind,” she says. “But there’s been more scrutiny of British Columbia mining in the last four years than since the goldrush.”
She says B.C.’s outdated mining laws have to change, and points to lawyer Mark Haddock’s recent recommendations to the province, which call for changes to the current system of “professional reliance” employed by resource companies like Imperial Metals.
It’s a system of relying on industry-hired specialists — like consultant biologists that test water quality — to produce science that government itself used to do. An underlying problem with this, is that when a company pays the wages of consultants (and the consultants rely on continuing work), there is undeniable pressure for science to conform to the interests of the company. The B.C. government announced reforms to the “professional reliance” system on Monday.
This issue is highly relevant to the Mount Polley disaster. In late September 2018, the regulatory body that oversees B.C.’s engineers accused three engineers — former Mount Polley contractors who worked on the dam — of “negligence and/or unprofessional conduct in the course of their professional activities.” Meanwhile the company, by this reliance on consulting experts, appears to have escaped direct responsibility for the tailings breach.
“You can view the Mount Polley disaster as a failure of government in terms of their approach of self-regulation,” says federal NDP Fisheries Critic and B.C. MP Fin Donnelly, who before politics, swam the 1,375 kilometre length of the Fraser twice, to draw attention to salmon and the wider ecosystem. “This has to change.”
Donnelly says two positive outcomes are still possible four years after the disaster. One is to change the system of professional reliance brought in by the BC Liberals, and second, for the federal government to hold the company accountable for the spill.
“It’s an outrage that there have been no charges laid for the breach.”
Over breakfast on my last day in Likely, a biologist named Richard Holmes tells me the company could be on the hook for anywhere between $150,000 and $8 million if convicted under the Fisheries Act — which deems it a serious offence to release a substance “deleterious” to fish.
The 2014 dam breach was already Mount Polley’s second offence under this legislation — the first happened when the company damaged a rainbow trout spawning creek that flows into nearby Bootjack Lake.
Holmes says that in addition to not pressing charges, the province rejected the B.C. Auditor General’s 2016 recommendation that called for a separation between the B.C. Ministry of Mines and Energy’s dual role as promoter and regulator of mining.
But that was then.
Will the NDP government do a better job of regulating resource extraction?
Holmes is a good person to ask.
The independent biologist, who works mostly with First Nations on fisheries issues, was in a boat with then-NDP opposition leader John Horgan in the days following the disaster. (At the time, Horgan suggested the BC Liberals were involved in a “cover-up.”) He recalls the experience left Horgan visibly shaken.
“The regulatory base we have to work with has not changed,” says Holmes of the transition of political leadership. “Mining, forestry, aquaculture — it hasn’t changed. Power is entrenched with the businesses operating in the province which stand to make money.”
Holmes thinks the real power in B.C. lies with captains of industry like Jimmy Pattison, or even oilsands billionaire Murray Edwards, who owns 40 per cent of Imperial Metals and threw the now-infamous million-dollar Calgary fundraiser for B.C. Premier Christy Clark in 2013.
“It will be tough to change that.”
After breakfast we walk across the road to the Quesnel River, where I take a few clumsy photos of Holmes on the bank before I depart for good. His eyes are shut for most of them, squinting at the blazing sun, which illuminates the backs of a few sockeye struggling against the powerful river. Two bald eagles circle above us through the morning mist, completing the near postcard perfection of the scene.
If you didn’t know Mount Polley’s new tailings dam was perched high above all of this, you would never suspect anything was wrong.
Update, November 7, 2018 11:35am pst: The word slurry has been replaced with effluent in this piece to more accurately reflect the nature of the tailings being deposited into Quesnel Lake.
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