Three years on, Mount Polley disaster a painful reminder of never-ending horror

Photo by Jonathan Hayward/CP

Bev Sellers is constantly reminded about the deeply personal, social and cultural loss that she and others in her community of Williams Lake have suffered since the Mount Polley mine disaster in 2014. A few weeks ago, when the former Chief of the Xat’sull First Nation at Soda Creek, British Columbia was forced to evacuate her home because of the raging wildfires, she looked around and wondered what to take.

“What could I grab that I couldn’t replace?” she says, remembering looking around at her life’s belongings. “All kinds of history sits in my house. I sighed, asked the ancestors to keep everyone safe and made my decision. I gathered a couple of boxes of old pictures, took a walk around the house looking for what was important and eyed two flats of canned salmon that we got from the Band. I have not eaten Fraser River salmon in such a long time and because my children have connections in Nuxalk territory (Bella Coola) I am fortunate to be able to get some salmon from there. I took the canned salmon because to me, that is my gold. I couldn’t imagine leaving it and allowing it to be burnt up. Even though it is not from our territory, that salmon, or at least some of it, would have been born in the Quesnel Lake area.”

Canada’s largest mine waste disaster on August 4, 2014, saw 24 million cubic metres of mine waste and water flushed into Hazeltine and Edney Creeks and Polley and Quesnel Lakes, all located in the Cariboo region of Central British Columbia and part of the Fraser River Watershed. Quesnel Lake, one of the largest fjord lakes in the world and considered the birthing waters of sacred salmon and other fish that provide food security in the region, continues to have mine waste pumped into it from the Mount Polley Mine after the province gave special permission to do so in April 2017. According to MiningWatch Canada, “the littoral area along the West Arm of Quesnel Lake was permanently altered by the Mount Polley spill,” and there is no plan to stop polluting anytime soon.

Christine McLean and her family bought a cabin on Quesnel Lake five years ago. Her first cabin log entry in March 2012 read, “We always dreamed of having something really special to pass on to our children, our grandchildren and for them to keep passing it on. That special something became a place on the lake, fishing, hiking, sledding, swimming and maybe even skating! We picked the Cariboo, and in particular, Quesnel Lake because we are absolutely certain that the water will always be protected, there will always be fish in it and it will be many years before it becomes too crowded. Today we draw our water directly from the lake for drinking. I’m sure I’ll catch a trout right off the dock.”

Today, McLean, is the Spokesperson for Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake. She says that the community has lost all trust in the company and government - because of the dam spill but also because of the actions they have both taken since then. “Now the Long Term Water Treatment Plan, which will be in effect till the mine life ends 2022 (and forever), is to discharge treated mine contact water via pipeline directly into Quesnel Lake with a 100 m3 Initial Dilution Zone! Using a pristine (or any) waterway as part of the treatment plan for any industry should not be allowed anywhere in Canada,” says McLean. “Water is not a renewable resource!”

BC Announces No Charges Will be Laid

Just days short of the three-year statute of limitations to lay charges in the case, the Province of British Columbia announced on August 2nd that they found no reason to go forward legally against the company. Critics, like Sellers and McLean, say that the Mount Polley disaster should have been a wake up call - but instead is just proving that there is no political will to regulate the mining industry, even in light of disasters like Mount Polley. Weak provincial and federal laws have led to the majority of the world’s mining companies being registered in Canada - and many specifically in BC - because they know they won’t have to pay the consequences of environmental disasters when they arise.

The province reports that both an Expert Panel and the Chief Inspector of Mines for the province, which investigated the mine disaster, “found that the Mount Polley tailings dam failed because the strength and location of a layer of clay underneath the dam was not taken into account in the design or in subsequent dam raises,” raising questions about the approval of the original Environmental Impact Assessment. The province notes,”The Chief Inspector also found other factors including the slope of the perimeter embankment, inadequate water management, insufficient beaches and a sub-excavation at the outside toe of the dam exacerbated the collapse of the dam and the ensuing environmental damage.” Despite the evidence, the province is now leaving it in the hands of the federal government to further pursue an investigation that could lead to charges through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

But this is an issue people care about - close to 40,000 people have signed a Sum of Petition to demand justice and a fair and comprehensive clean up by the company, which will be presented at the Provincial Mine Ministers’ Meeting in Fredericton, New Brunswick in August. Amnesty International is also adding signatures to demand a public inquiry that would lead to reforms in the mining sector - even though there has been little evidence to date to show that governments are serious about protecting the environment and livelihoods.

Indigenous Solidarity for Mount Polley - Labrador Land Protectors and The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Around the August 4th anniversary of the Mount Polley disaster, communities across the country and internationally are participating in water ceremonies and gatherings to remember Quesnel Lake. First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining - which Sellers is Chair - has been the key proponent of the initiative to unite water defenders.

Denise Cole, Inuk leader from Labrador says it’s important for her and others to participate in August 4th solidarity actions to remember the Mount Polley disaster while drawing attention to their own struggle to keep their watershed safe. “Right now we are struggling in central Labrador as Nalcor, a crown corporation, is building a mega dam on our beautiful Grand (Churchill) River at one of our sacred spaces: Muskrat Falls. This hydro project comes with many risks including drowning from dam breach on an unstable area known as the North Spur and methylmercury poisoning into our downstream traditional food web.”

Like communities across the country, where Indigenous Peoples have been spied on and criminalized for their resistance to extractive projects in their territory without Free, Prior and Informed Consent, Cole and others know that fighting major corporations with the backing of government is not going to be easy.

“We are working together as land protectors, riverkeepers, and citizens to fight back against this project. Our battle has been long and hard, with many of our own facing charges for peaceful resistance actions,” says Cole.

The Labrador Land Protectors are looking forward to the opportunity to show solidarity with the communities impacted by the Mount Polley mine disaster. “Our ceremony gives us a chance to pause in the resistance to pray, sing, and come together for the healing of our river and people. This Friday we are going to the river with Elders, persons of faith, warriors, musicians, Indigenous, and settlers to put our energy into helping us protect Mother Earth and asking Creator to protect us too. It is a time for healing and rejuvenation as well as education.”

Romeo Saganash, an NDP MP representing communities from Abitibi-Baie-James and Nunavuk - brought forward legislation - Bill C262 - an Act to “ensure that Canadian laws are consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (The Declaration). He believes that the proposed legislation “will explicitly reject colonialism in favour of a contemporary approach based on justice, equality, respect for human rights and good faith.” The bill is expected to go to second reading this fall, though it is uncertain if the Liberals will support it.

“The Declaration recognizes that Indigenous Peoples are experts on their own rights. It honours the tenacity and knowledge of our ancestors by reaffirming our inherent rights.” He notes that The Declaration is meant for everyone - and has big hopes for its future in Canada. “[It] provides guidance to governments, a roadmap for non-Indigenous peoples to better understand their responsibilities and a powerful tool to advocate for Indigenous rights, both collective and individual. Key provisions – such as the right to say yes or no to development in Indigenous territories – are even being adopted by some investors and lending Agencies.”

As it becomes painstakingly clear that provincial and federal laws do not currently go far enough to protect communities, Saganash hopes that federal legislation will, “provide clarity on jurisdiction and process; it will be a catalyst to repeal the Indian Act and its paternalistic decision-making and land ownership sections,” which would be a welcome change for many Indigenous communities and frontline land and water defenders.

For Denise Cole In Labrador, solidarity on water issues is an important part of the long-term struggle for justice. “We recognize that coast to coast our people and water are under attack from governments, energy and mining companies,” says Cole. “What happened in Mount Polley was so very wrong and violent. To destroy water and the life within it has devastating consequences to the whole circle of life. We stand together in front of Creator and ask for healing, putting our collective energy together, and putting faith in the power of this unity. All water connects and all water is life. We stand in solidarity across Turtle Island against water injustices.”

Late on Friday, August 4, 2017, Bev Sellers personally filed charges against Imperial Metals for the Mount Polley mine disaster in 2014. In total, 15 charges have been laid under provincial Environmental Management and Mines Acts. The Provincial NDP has also pledged to look into why the investigation was not completed and charges were not laid in time.

Jackie McVicar is a member of the Atlantic Region Solidarity Network (ARSN). ARSN is a network of groups and individuals who are working in solidarity with people struggling for social justice and environmental protection in Latin America, the Caribbean and Atlantic Canada.

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