MAC: Mines and Communities

Canadian First Nations, NGOs demand full disclosure and government action on Sherritt's toxic coal spill

Published by MAC on 2013-12-27
Source: Statement, CBC News, Edmonton Journal, Mining.com (2013-12-24)

The following statement is a response from affected Indigenous peoples and NGOs to the greenwashing spin that governments and Sherritt International are putting on a massive spill of coal slurry into Canada's Athabasca watershed. The statement and two media reports are included.

Meanwhile, Sherritt International is selling its coal business - raising the question whether  it was simpy planning to dodge liability for the disaster.

However, just after Christmas, the company announced that they would continue to work with Westmoreland Coal (one of the two purchasers of its coal business), in order "to work on the Obed Mountain Mine remediation plan, and meet financial obligations resulting from the spill".

(This posting is an update of an earlier MAC story: Canada: Worries grow over vast coal slurry leak).

First Nations and NGOs Demand Full Disclosure and Government Action on Sherritt's Toxic Coal Mine Spill

Keepers of the Athabasca, Central Athabasca Stewardship Society, Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan Community-based Monitoring Program, MiningWatch Canada, and the Regional Environmental Action Committee Joint statement

18 December 2013

First Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are concerned that the Alberta Government and Sherritt International continue to downplay the effects of the release of 670-million litres of coal mine wastes from the Obed Mountain Mine into the Athabasca River watershed and that the federal government has remained silent on the spill. Several groups have formed an ad-hoc committee to share information about the spill and advocate for appropriate responses from Sherritt, and the provincial and federal governments. The committee includes: Keepers of the Athabasca, Central Athabasca Stewardship Society, Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan Community-based Monitoring Program, MiningWatch Canada, and the Regional Environmental Action Committee. These groups are deeply troubled by the corporation's and the provincial and federal governments failure to acknowledge the significant environmental effects and ongoing risks to the Athabasca watershed.

To date there has been no formal notice or announcement from the federal government about the spill but the groups are demanding the federal government lay charges against Sherritt under Sections 35 and 36 of the Fisheries Act. Charges under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act are also warranted and should be pursued to their full measure, say the groups. The groups want to see full disclosure of the contents of the waste ponds and a commitment from the company and government for transparent long-term monitoring of the water and sediments in the creeks and Athabasca River from the origin of the spill to the Peace Athabasca Delta. Future monitoring must include participation of First Nations and include their technical and traditional knowledge.

As an example of how impacts are being minimised, the groups point to Sherritt's December 6th update, which does not acknowledge the substantive damage to fish habitat along the creeks that received the initial flood of wastes before they entered the Athabasca River. These creeks contained important fish habitat that would have been completely wiped out by the surge of water and solid wastes. The spill will also have direct impacts on early life stages of several sensitive species such as whitefish and bull trout. "Why don't we have an accounting of these impacts in the recent update from Sherritt?" asked fisheries biologist Carl Hunt.

Sherritt also continues to portray the spilled wastes as "natural" despite the presence of large amounts of toxic substances that would not naturally be released to the watershed at this scale. "Data from the National Pollutant Release Inventory gives us a sketch of what was in the Obed waste ponds and describing the material as ‘natural' is akin to the well debunked claims that hydrocarbons in the lower Athabasca are from natural sources," commented MiningWatch Canada spokesperson Ramsey Hart.

Both Alberta and Sherritt continue to focus on the improvements in water quality since the spill and claim that there are no expectations of health impacts. The contaminants that entered the watershed have not, however, disappeared and there is no information being provided about the fate of the contaminants and how they are impacting the river bottom. Much of the life of a river comes from the bottom - exactly where these pollutants including highly toxic mercury, arsenic and cadmium, are going to end up. "We remain very concerned about the medium and longer-term impacts to the health of the river ecosystem and to those that depend on it for food," commented Jule Asterisk, Director of the Society of High Prairie Regional Environmental Action Committee

To date Sherritt has provided testing results as far downstream as Fort McMurray while the government sampled as far downstream as Fort Richardson Lake. At a public meeting hosted by the University of Alberta on December 2, an Alberta Government employee stated that the plume was undetectable downstream of the Town of Athabasca. However, monitoring by Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations indicates that a plume with sediments three times the previous background concentration arrived at Lake Athabasca on December 4th and 5th. "Our findings conflict with those of the Government of Alberta and Sherritt that suggest the plume dissipated before reaching the Peace Athabasca Delta," commented Bruce Maclean, who manages the First Nations' community-based monitoring program. "We believe the spill will have long lasting impacts on fish and other wildlife, and consequently on human health. The MCFN and ACFN see the Obed accident as a direct negative impact on their ability to exercise their traditional rights and are considering legal action," added Maclean.

Contacts:

Ramsey Hart, MiningWatch Canada, 613-569-3439 / 613-298-4745 (mobile)

Carl Hunt, Fisheries Biologist, 780-723-4908

Harvey Scott, Keepers of the Athabasca, 780-675-4158

Bruce Maclean, Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations Community Monitoring Program, 204-770-4501

Links:

Video of December 2 public forum including presentations from the Government of Alberta, First Nations and Independent Environmental Experts

Presentation of NPRI data for Obed Mountain Mine by MiningWatch Canada


Alberta First Nations want charges laid over Obed spill

CBC News

20 December 2013

The Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations in Alberta say they're considering legal action over a coal mine spill at the Obed Mountain Mine. The groups say the provincial and federal governments haven't gone far enough to protect water and fish.

In October, 670-million litres of water from a tailings pond at the Obed coal mine leaked into the Athabasca River. A month later, Sherritt International issued a letter saying that water quality in the Athabasca river was safe.

Bruce Maclean manages the Mikisew Cree and Athasbasca Chipewyan First Nation's monitoring program.

"What was most distressing to the community members was there had been broadcasts by the company, Sherritt, in the two traditional languages - Dene and Cree - that were saying that everything was okay. That the water and the fish were safe," Maclean says. "There's no clear indication that things are okay. In fact, there are probably going to be long-standing impacts to fish habitat on that stretch of the Athabasca."

MacLean says data provided by the Alberta government suggest there's no evidence of the mine waste around the town of Athabasca.

But the First Nations say their own tests found triple the amount of sediment normally found in Lake Athabasca, though the groups can't say for sure if that increase is from the coal mine incident.

In a joint press release, the two First Nations groups, along with Mining Watch and several environmental groups say they are "deeply troubled by the corporation's and the provincial and federal governments failure to acknowledge the significant environmental effects and ongoing risks to the Athabasca watershed."

Maclean says he'd like to see charges laid and more government transparency.

"I think what we're looking for is some form of accountability from the federal and Alberta governments, and making it clear that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable," Maclean says.

Jessica Potter speaks for the Alberta government and says they are investigating, but it's too early to tell if any environmental laws have been broken.

"Essentially, our experts have been on the ground overseeing all the activities since day one," Potter says. "And we're going to continue to oversee the actions of the company because we are the regulator."

The Alberta government says it posts all of its data from the spill online, and it will continue to keep communities living downstream in the loop. The government also encourages all independent monitors to share their data with the government.

The federal government wasn't available for an interview.


First Nations seek charges over Obed slurry spill

By Marty Klinkenberg

Edmonton Journal

18 December 2013

Sediment plume reached Lake Athabasca, water consultant says

EDMONTON - The Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations and a handful of conservation organizations are asking that charges be laid against Sherritt International as a result of its Oct. 31 coal slurry spill into the Athabasca watershed.

The groups say water-quality testing done for the First Nations shows that a plume of sediment reached Lake Athabasca, more than 600 kilometres up river, on Dec. 4.

"There is a high contamination load, and what's happening is that the sediment is settling on the bottom of the river," said Bruce MacLean, a consultant in Winnipeg who manages water-monitoring for the First Nations. "I think what is happening is being downplayed.

"You throw stuff into the river, and it's there."

MacLean said samples taken on Dec. 4 and 5 conflict with the assertions by government that the plume of material from the containment pond had dissipated before reaching the lake. He says water samples taken from sites on the Athabasca River on Dec. 4 and 5 varied significantly from those drawn between Nov. 25 to Dec. 3.

"The turbidity levels went up by three- and four-fold," MacLean said.

Based on that, and warnings from biologists that environmental damage has likely occurred, the groups believe charges are warranted under provisions of the federal Fisheries Act and Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

"The spill may have dispersed, but it contained heavy metals that settled on the bottom," said Eriel Deranger, a communications co-ordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "At this point, we're not in the clear at all. For someone to be saying that everything is OK is propaganda."

Although they initially advised communities downstream of the spill not to draw water from the river, Alberta Environment officials now say that it poses no health risk. The company, which has been doing its own testing, has been saying the same in advertisements in Dene and Cree on radio stations in northern Alberta.

The company acknowledges that about 670,000 litres of waste water leaked from its Obed Mountain mine site, unleashing muddy sediment and eroding the banks of creeks for five kilometres. The pond contained a mixture of clay, sand and coal particles, but some potentially harmful compounds as well - arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese.

Sean McCaughan, Sherritt's senior vice-president for coal operations, said Wednesday night that the company's experts maintain that the water quality in the river poses no risk to humans, fish and wildlife.

He said that the company knows that fishery habitat was damaged in the creeks nearest the mine site, but that it will be spring before proper assessments can be made.

"I am sorry that an incident like this could happen and certainly want that message to get out there," McCaughan said. "Our company and employees are committed to doing what we can to make this right."


Sherritt to help with Obed Mine cleanup despite sale

The Canadian Press

27 December 2013

The owner of an Alberta mine where waste spilled into the Athabasca River says it will still be involved with the cleanup, despite the sale of the facility.

Sherritt International says it will continue to work with Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal on the Obed Mountain Mine remediation plan, and meet financial obligations resulting from the spill.

Sherritt International announced earlier this week it is selling its entire coal business in Canada to two separate buyers for $946 million.

An earth berm broke at the Obed Mountain mine near Hinton in October, allowing an estimated 670 million litres of coal waste to spill into two creeks that feed the Athabasca River.


Canada's Sherritt sells coal business for almost $1bn

Cecilia Jamasmie

Mining.com

24 December 2013

Sherritt International Corp. said Tuesday is selling its entire coal business to two separate buyers for a total of $946 million, split almost evenly between Westmoreland Coal and Altius Minerals.

The Toronto-based resource miner, Canada's largest thermal coal producer, said it will now focus on its core nickel and oil operations. For that reason, it is selling seven producing mines in Western Canada to US-based Westmoreland Coal for about Cdn$465 million. The transaction also includes a stake in an activated carbon plant and a char facility, which supplies barbecue briquette producers.

Its Canadian coal and potash royalty business are being acquired by a group led by Altius Minerals for about Cdn$481 million in cash.

Sherritt is a diversified resource company with operations in several countries, including Madagascar, where it owns a major nickel operation, and Cuba, where it has an oil business.

The firm was one of the companies involved in a November spill earlier this month where hundreds of millions of litres of contaminated water from the company's Obed Mountain coal mine made it into the Athabasca River.


B.C. announces coal rights deferral deal in Sacred Headwaters area

Dirk Meissner

The Canadian Press

16 December 2013

VICTORIA - A remote area of northwest British Columbia considered sacred by aboriginals and resource rich by mining companies has received a reprieve from potential coal-mining activities with a government order that puts new coal tenures on hold for one year.

The Tahltan Nation call the area Klappan, and it has been the site of protests by aboriginal elders who say mining will threaten the spiritual, cultural and wilderness values of the region, which includes the confluence of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said Monday the Klappan Coal Licence Deferral Area Order is a temporary measure that will allow the government, the Tahltan and the mining industry time to negotiate a management agreement for the area.

The deferral order impacts 62 coal licence applications, but existing area coal tenures and authorizations, including the Fortune Minerals' Arctos project, are not impacted, he said.

Fortune Minerals, of London, Ont., announced last fall that it was pausing exploratory work for an open-pit coal mine in the Klappan, following an earlier decision by Shell Canada to give up its rights to explore and drill for coal-bed methane gas.

"We bought ourselves a year where we can have, I hope, some in-depth discussions with the Tahltan about what they think is necessary," Bennett said. "They don't want mining in the Klappan, that's their position. So we're going to have to spend some time and some effort this year and determine whether that's something that can't change, won't change, in which case we're going to have to come up with some kind of solution."

Tahltan central council president Annita McPhee said the deferral order provides more time for the Tahltan to convince the government and industry that the area must remain pristine.

Rugged mountains border the vast alpine valley where the three rivers cut meandering paths through the high-altitude marshland as they become sheer forces of nature that include canyons, rapids and critical salmon habitat.

Known for their abundant salmon runs and prime habitat for grizzly, wolf, caribou and moose, the three rivers and the 4,000-square-kilometre area are deeply tied to the Tahltan and Iskut people of the area, McPhee said.

"It's positive because it gives us some temporary relief," McPhee said. "It's a first step toward the long journey of protecting the Klappan. As Tahltan people, we're going to continue to resist any industrial development like the Arctos project that continues to threaten our land and our culture."

Bennett said the government is looking for some form of management agreement for the area. But he said whatever deal is reached after a year, the Arctos plan for an open-pit coal mine in the Klappan is still on the books as potentially proceeding in the future.

"I don't want to speculate on what the final model of management will look like there," Bennett said. "We're not contemplating a park. I can tell you that, but other than that the management model could be a number of different things and the boundaries for it could be different as well."

Bennett said he is aware that the Tahltan aboriginals have been arrested in the past and have vigorously voiced their opposition to mining proposals. Last fall, he met with Tahltan protesters who built a camp near the proposed Arctos development.

The Klappan area is about 400 kilometres north of Smithers and includes few inhabited communities other than Telegraph Creek and Dease Lake.


Sherritt to help with Obed Mine cleanup despite sale

The Canadian Press

27 December 2013

The owner of an Alberta mine where waste spilled into the Athabasca River says it will still be involved with the cleanup, despite the sale of the facility.

Sherritt International says it will continue to work with Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal on the Obed Mountain Mine remediation plan, and meet financial obligations resulting from the spill.

Sherritt International announced earlier this week it is selling its entire coal business in Canada to two separate buyers for $946 million.

An earth berm broke at the Obed Mountain mine near Hinton in October, allowing an estimated 670 million litres of coal waste to spill into two creeks that feed the Athabasca River.

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