When the Catalyst Paper Company’s pulp mill was renovated in the 1980s, ancestral remains of the Halalt First Nation were found underneath a cement helicopter pad. The discovery was yet another piece of evidence that the mill, located in Crofton, B.C. about 45 kilometres north of Victoria, was built on culturally sensitive First Nation’s territory.
But according to the Halalt First Nation, cultural damage is only a part of the harm caused by the industrial facility, operating since 1957, that is responsible for the release of endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing dioxins and furans into the local environment.
According to Eli Enns, director of operations for the Halaht, the ongoing pollution in the region is wreaking havoc on the local environment.
“You have the Crofton mill itself which has unfortunately cemented right over sacred burial sites of the Halalt Coast Salish peoples,” Enns says in a new film, premiered by the nation here on DeSmog Canada (see below).
“It has totally destroyed the estuary and traditional food systems for the Halalt. It has inundated the airshed with all kinds of toxic pollutants which will probably have long lasting and unpredictable effects on the health of the Halalt people and other local communities.”
Dioxins and furans, the byproduct of a chlorine bleaching process, bioaccumulate in the food chain and are stored in the fatty tissues of animals. The presence of dioxins in animals has been linked to birth defects, spontaneous abortions and tumors.
A 1991 report prepared for the B.C. Aquaculture Research and Development Council found blue heron near the Crofton mill suffering reproductive failure contained high levels of dioxins in their tissue.
Enns says the pollution has severely impacted the community and its ability to live in and off the land.
“The community’s use and enjoyment of their own village has been highly intruded upon,” he said.
The federal government released new rules regulating the release of dioxins and furans from pulp and paper mills in 1992, although for communities living near major polluters like the Crofton mill, it was too little too late. Major damage to fisheries near Crofton led to permanent closures in the Crofton region.
Enns told DeSmog Canada that new regulations or cleaner operations won’t help resolve the mill’s legacy pollution issues.
“There is no elimination that has happened.”
In 2015 Environment Canada listed the Crofton mill as the third largest source of air pollution in B.C. for 2013.
“Obviously you can create regulations on things but that doesn’t mean everyone is complying,” Enns said.
“There was unregulated polluting for a long time and now there may be certain measure that have been put into place to reduce those dioxins and furans but they are are still causing damage.”
The Halalt First Nation has launched a legal suit against Catalyst, claiming damages of $2 billion for impacts to biodiversity and local ecosystems as well as interference with aboriginal rights.
A second suit, launched by the Halalt along with two business partners —Sunvault Energy Inc. and Aboriginal Power Corp — claims an additional $100 million in damages as well as an injunction to permanently stop the mill’s activities.
The two cases were launched in January but have yet to make their way to the courts.
Halalt First Nations Elder Joseph Norris says he can recall his grandfather negotiating with the pulp mill in the 50s for the relocation of his people’s remains.
“They moved us out of there to where we are. He told them, ‘give us the opportunity to remove some of our ancient bones’…they didn’t care, they just built over [them],” Norris says in the film.
“The Halalt has taken the pulp mill to court… we’re not against what they’re doing and they have a lot of people working for them — but it’s what their distributing into our rivers and into our air.”
Chief James Thomas of the Halalt First Nation says that before the mill was constructed his people were able to harvest seafood from the area without concern. Now, elevated levels of toxins present in the water have made it unsafe to do so.
“The carcinogens end up in the phytoplankton, the plankton feed the other animals and at the end of the day ends up in the food chain,” he said. “It accumulates faster probably in the birds than it does in us.”
“We’re not allowed to eat crabs out here anymore because of the dioxins and furans levels.”
Bill Bonsall, a Crofton resident and former cattle rancher, said his family has been on a local farm since 1873 and has since had to stop raising cows because of health problems they’ve traced back to contaminated water.
“If the cows don’t live on a farm you don’t make much money,” he said.
“The estuary is totally destroyed. It’s a disaster area now. How the hell are you going to live off the land when there’s nothing there?”
“I can remember this place for 80 years, vividly. I know there was fish in the creek, there were birds — it was beautiful.”
“There used to be seven oyster farms in the neighbourhood. Now there’s none, hasn’t been since the mill came in,” Bonsall says.
Chief Thomas says the entire region has been closed to fisheries because of the mill.
“You have a huge dead zone with no oxygen levels in this territory,” he says. “So baby fish coming out of the creek at the end of his knoll here, they go out there and their first breath in the ocean is in a zone with no oxygen."
For the Halalt, the negative effect of the mill on the environment means the end of a way of life.
“They’re destroying our way of life for the almighty dollar,” Thomas says. “We’re a non-treaty band, we’ve never extinguished anywhere our rights and titles.”
Thomas said elders in his community are passing away as the nation waits for resolution. He said ultimately the federal government is responsible for issuing the permits necessary to pollute.
For Norris, an elder participating in the battle, there is still a lesson to be learned from his grandfather’s teaching that you only take what you need.
“The younger generation needs to hear what it was like yesterday so they can build a better tomorrow,” he says.
Image: Crofton mill. Harvard Photos/Facebook