Tribal council speaks to disaster’s effects on Secwepemc community
“It was like a death,” Jacinda Mack began. “We cried. We grieved.”
The town of Likely, B.C. was devastated last year when Mount Polley, a local gold and copper mine, experienced a breach in its tailings storage facility.
Roughly 13.8 thousand cubic metres of tailings slurry spilled into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, according to a report from Imperial Metals, the company that owns the mine.
“I don’t even call it Hazeltine Creek anymore, because it’s not,” said Mack, a mining response co-ordinator for the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council.
Mack is touring B.C.’s universities to raise awareness on the disaster’s impact on both the Secwepemc people and the general public.
“If you don’t know where you are right now, you are in Secwepemculecw,” she told a packed room in Old Main last week. “In most of Secwepemculecw it’s quite dry, but out in Quesnel Lake there’s rainforest. There are medicines and foods out there that we can’t get anywhere else.”
According to Mack, Quesnel Lake was an important source of potable water before the disaster. In fact, the town of Likely relied on it, and went four months without access to clean tap water after the contamination.
“On a clear, calm day you could have easily seen to the bottom of the lake,” she said. “It was that clean.”
In the wake of the contamination, Mack said toxins may have accumulated in the region’s salmon as well as other local wildlife that prey on the salmon.
“A lot of communities decided not to harvest salmon,” she said, noting that salmon are an important traditional food source for the Secwepemc people. “We have a land-based economy that [the Secwepemc] are still very closely connected to.”
“Sometimes when I’m talking to people they’ll ask me, ‘Do you guys really still live that way? Like, really? I see you guys in Save-on-Foods and Costco.’”
Mack has a simple answer to the question: “Yes, we still do live this way, but it’s becoming tougher to.”
“A question that remains is if our children will be able to,” she said. “It’s becoming less and less frequent for us to have our traditional food because it’s becoming more scarce.”
Mack hopes that mines elsewhere in B.C. will take note of the Mount Polley disaster and think twice about their risk management plans.
“The Mount Polley spill was never supposed to happen,” she said. “They believed it was an impossible event.”
The Government of British Columbia commissioned a geotechnical report to assess the cause of the disaster after it happened, according to environmental studies professor Michael Mehta. He said the main problem was that the mine was situated on soft glacial till sediment.
“The mine did not anticipate or understand exactly how building on it could cause disasters, especially as it continued to increase the height of the containment system [beyond its original capacity].”
In response to the spill, Mack said the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council wants to take proactive measures to help prevent other mines in Secwepemculecw from experiencing similar disasters.
“We have this new process where there’s a principal’s table that puts our chiefs at the same table as the ministers,” she said. “We also have a new mining policy that we put out on Dec. 1 last year.”
The policy Mack referred to is the Northern Secwepmec te Qelmucw (NStQ) Mining Policy, and she said “it pulls together the best mining practices and indigenous laws from worldwide into one comprehensive document, and outlines our minimum standards for operations within our territory.”
“What happens if this happens at another mine in Secwepemculecw?” she asked the crowd. “You have mines around Kamloops. What happens if they go? How will your water be impacted?”