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Soda Creek First Nation Struggles to Cover Costs of Independent Mount Polley Water Testing

The Soda Creek First Nation, traditionally called the Xatśūll First Nation, is going to tap into band savings for a community centre to pay for independent scientists to study the local environment in the wake of the Mount Polley mine spill that sent billions of litres of mining waste in Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake.

Bev Sellars, chief of the Soda Creek said ever since the spill occurred it has been difficult to find reliable sources of information.

“The reports coming out from mining and the government say everything is fine, but we don’t really believe that,” she said in an interview in Vancouver. “A disaster such as this – there are going to be long term effects.”

Major concerns for her nation have to do with the long-term effects of the spill on Quesnel Lake, which is in the traditional territory of the Soda Creek First Nation and the Williams Lake Indian Band.

“I don’t think anybody really knows how [Quesnel Lake] has been affected,” she said.

“I’m not a scientist but I know that it’s going to be drastically affected in some way, but how, I don’t know,” she added.

Last week a local drinking water ban was lifted for all affected water, excluding Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and where the Hazeltine meets Quesnel Lake.

Although the water ban has been mostly lifted, there are no clear plans for cleanup of the spill site yet.

And there won’t be, until Imperial Metals has completed a partial draining of Polly Lake into Hazeltine Creek, Sellars said.

At this stage, no involved party can claim the science is settled until the spill is, Sellars said.

“We were told when we met with Imperial Metals, I think it was four days after the spill, they hadn’t even started to [clean up] yet, that it would take three weeks to stop the spill before they could go and even start doing an investigation,” she said.

“It’s still spilling out.”

Sellars said word of the spill came as a shock to her community, who are still coming to terms with the news.

“We had a community meeting over at the Williams Lake Indian Band and the tears and the heartache, just people crying, worried about the spill and what that is going to do to the salmon,” she said.

“The Quesnel Lake area is an area where we go and find certain medicines and plants that we can’t find in other parts of our territory. That’s a real worry and concern.”

Sellars said she feels the provincial government has been too hasty in it’s assessment of drinking water and fish impacts.

“I think there they are too quick to say everything is fine. That it’s benign,” she said.

Bill Bennett, minister of mines for B.C., recently likened the spill to an avalanche, which happen frequently across the province every year, he said. Locals took offense to the comparison, saying it downplays the environmental damage and potential long-term consequences of the spill, which are yet to be seen.

Sellars said it’s true that avalanches occur across B.C., “but avalanches don’t have toxic material following right behind it,” she said. “Avalanches have natural materials, so there’s a big difference there.”

Sellars said a priority for her community now is to ensure they have access to independent information.

Her community has brought in a scientist who previously worked on the Exxon Valdez spill, a geochemist that worked at the Mount Polley mine and engineer Brian Olding, who wrote a technical report in 2011 warning the B.C. Ministry of Environment about the Mount Polley tailings pond.

These independent experts are warning the Soda Creek First Nation about the veracity of government and industry claims, Sellars said.

“They’re telling us that what Mount Polley and the governments are saying is absolutely not true,” she said. “So we have hired them to get our own answers and make sure that we get the answers. If they tell us everything is fine, then we’ll accept that.”

“But we’re not accepting Mount Polley or the government’s tests right now,” she said, adding there is an underlying element of mistrust.

“Definitely a lack of trust” she said. “Definitely.”

“I think it’s way too soon for anyone to say that there really are no consequences,” Sellars said, saying they’re expecting one of the largest salmon runs in years to begin next month. The salmon will have to swim directly through Quesnel Lake, which is home to 25 per cent of the province’s sockeye salmon, where the contents of the spill still linger.

Sellars said the impact of the spill is far from over.

“This is huge and it’s going to affect us for years to come. I just can’t understand how they can make statements like that,” she said, referring to the provincial government’s claim that drinking water is safe for consumption.

Sellars said the only way her community can move forward is if they can rely on the information they are given by experts.

“My community, we’ve been saving for a community hall for years,” she said. “We’re almost at the point where we can go to the bank and say we have this money and we want to build a community hall.”

“But we’ve taken money out of our own community hall money to hire our own experts because this has to be done. So that’s what we’re doing now – getting independent scientific analysis of the situation.”

This article is part of a joint-venture between DeSmog Canada and the Vancouver Observer.

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Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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