All photos via Kieran Oudshoorn.
After a man-made lake full of mining waste spilled in the central interior of British Columbia, security guards have been blocking entry to the subsequently contaminated lake and creek. Residents hoping to see first-hand what millions of cubic metres of tailings sludge might have done to Polley Lake or Hazeltine Creek are met with gates, guards, and blocked off roads.
(As of right now, the much larger Quesnel Lake remains accessible, despite it sporting a mysterious waxy film.)
Eight kilometres down the entrance road to the breached Mount Polley mine, a First Nation camp burns tobacco offerings in memory of the land traditionally called Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe. Over the course of yesterday afternoon, the roadside checkpoint—dotted with tents and flying three First Nation flags—drew visits from Green politician Andrew Weaver, RCMP patrollers, hereditary chiefs from surrounding nations, former and current mine workers, and me.
When I arrived at the camp, Secwepemc elders offered me tobacco to throw on the sacred fire; I added beef jerky out of my backpack to the offering as a sign of respect. Along a table stacked with food and supplies, a banner reads “no surrender.” At first a group of about 30 gathered to sing, drum, and together make sense of the massive environmental disaster.
“It’s really hard, it’s incomprehensible,” says Kanahus Manuel, member of the Secwepemc Women Warrior Society and co-founder of the camp. Manuel and others living in the camp since August 17 have monitored the freighters and buses coming out of the mining site, collecting what information they can from workers willing to stop and chat. “We’re all dealing with something catastrophic. The workers we’ve met have deep concerns.”
As the mining company and government make assurances about the safety and containment of the spill, locals’ eyes and noses tell a different story. “It was a big raunchy stink, like battery acid,” former Mount Polley worker Larry Chambers says of his first boat trip to the mouth of Hazeltine Creek on August 5. “We all came back with sore throats.”
Chambers worked at the mine last year, but says he was dismissed after pointing out what he felt were neglectful, dangerous practices. Not feeling satisfied with the company’s consultation at local meetings, he and his partner Lawna Bourassa parked their trailer at the Secwepemc camp last week. “We didn’t hear about the camp until it was here two days,” says Bourassa. “The feeling I get from the camp is we’re not alone.”
The camp follows at least two other First Nations actions against Imperial Metals—the mining company responsible for the spill containing arsenic, mercury, and other chemicals. On August 8, a group of Tahltan elders blocked the entrance to the soon-to-be-opened Red Chris mine near Terrace, BC. The Neskonlith Indian Band, part of the same Secwepemc Nation camping at Mount Polley, also served an eviction notice to Imperial’s nearby Ruddock Creek development.
As the crowd swelled to 40 and then 50 people, a second fire began searing a salmon feast for the camp. The meal reminded campers that the stakes on this year’s sockeye salmon run couldn’t be higher: with an expected 845,000 to 2.95 million salmon expected to rush through Quesnel Lake, officials still aren’t sure how all that mining sediment is going to affect the multi-million dollar fishing industry.
The most recent Ministry of Environment statement on aquatic life says fish tested had “an elevated level of selenium in the livers and gonads—exceeding guidelines for human consumption.” However, after consulting with Interior Health, the media statement goes on to say: “the flesh of the fish remains safe to eat.” Okay then.
Meanwhile, the government’s water quality results have been positive but pretty limited in scope. The ministry’s handful of samples taken at “shallow depths” in Quesnel Lake all passed federal drinking water guidelines.
No air quality testing has been done in the wake of the disaster, a point that residents of Likely, BC continue to question as chemical fumes waft into their homes. “The smell woke me up in the middle of the night,” says Bourassa. “I’ve had burning in the back of my throat, almost up in my sinuses.”
To catch a glimpse of the collapsed dam, Manuel motored up Quesnel Lake for an hour, beached the boat and hiked five kilometres into the site. “When we got up on land, we got there and you could still taste it in the back of your throat,” she recalls. “You can feel the headache coming on from the chemicals in there.”
With so much security and secrecy surrounding the spill, the camp has been collecting and releasing its own reporting and testimony. The group’s first 20-page report released yesterday points to long-term unknowns, and makes an effort to document the spill’s emotional toll. Manuel says the camp and the sacred fire burning at the site will continue to give a space to register this kind of local dissent.
“We lit this fire for our water, for our salmon, and to find a collective solution about how we’re going to respond to it,” says Manuel. “We pray people will come together, and people have come together.”