Has Atikokan’s Steep Rock mine project and coal plant contributed to serious health problems faced by residents of the Seine River First Nation? How can residents be protected from future contamination and create a sustainable and safe traditional food supply?
Those are two of the questions the Seine River and Naicatchewenin FNs hope to answer through an environmental contaminants study of the river system.
The goal is to provide a safe food supply and a baseline of information to guide future mining projects. Combined, the study area will encompass the river system downstream from Atikokan to Rainy Lake, other water sources for Straw Lake (north of Fort Frances) and other Seine River FN territory (a portion extends eastward to the Nolalu area), where hunting and harvesting grounds may serve as locations for development of secure traditional food sources.
It’s the second year of study for Seine River FN, which is joined by the Rainy Lake area Naicatchewenin this year through a funding partnership among First Nations University of Canada, Health Canada and the Assembly of First Nations. Lakehead University is also involved, assisting the First Nations in training staff in the sampling of soil, water, sediment, wild rice, berries, fish, moose and deer. LU Environmental Laboratory’s Dr. Peter Lee, along with another professor and a thesis student, are analyzing and interpreting sample results.
Early results of the work have already shown unsafe levels of mercury in fish and in wild rice traditionally consumed by residents.
The study was prompted by Seine River Chief Earl Klyne who became concerned with the possible role of environmental contaminants in the health of river residents after the release of a 2002 Health Canada study.
“Out of that study, it was clear to me that the people of the Seine River had higher instances of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mental health issues, particularly dementia,” said Chief Klyne. The same study indicated a high percentage of residents of a particular 2.5 kilometre stretch of shoreline along the international boundary where the Seine flows into the Rainy Lake experienced memory loss.
While he had been concerned with the health issues of many residents for some time, Chief Klyne said he was prompted to seek funds for the contaminants study during early consultation with the Hammond Reef gold exploration project owners, then Brett Resources. Chief Klyne said it seemed imperative for the FN to establish a baseline of current environmental issues on their territory and how to assess present and future mining projects.
In addition to testing contaminants in a wide variety of wilderness food sources, the First Nation has also received certification from the Research Ethics Board of Canada to test of hair samples of some residents along the river.
“We want to see if what we’re finding in the fish and wild rice is in our residents as well,” said Klyne.
Mercury and sulphate are the primary concerns at this point, given that high mercury levels have been found in fish, water and soil sediments along the river system. Historically, sulphates [which contribute to the formation of methyl mercury, the most virulent form of mercury found in freshwater fish] were present in high concentrations in the Steep Rock mine sediments that were deposited upstream of the river. In 1944 mine dredging saw 120 million cubic metres of sediments deposited in the west arm of the Steep Rock Lake. The original mine diversion plan sent the sediments down river, polluting the waters of the Seine River all the way down to Rainy Lake, prompting the involvement of the International Joint Commission.
While Dr. Lee said coal power plants like Atikokan’s are some of the “biggest contributors of mercury,” and the Steep Rock mine’s sulphate sediments is also an obvious likely source, even the Atikokan sewage system could be a possible contributor. Certain components like chloride and ammonia were detected in higher amounts “which may not contaminate, but do effect water quality,” noted Lee.
The area is also littered with past gold mines, where mercury and other toxins were used in mineral extraction, and could have found their way into the atmosphere and water tables.
Yet Chief Klyne is convinced there is one main culprit. “I truly believe it’s the Steep Rock and Caland mining operations which pushed tailings right into the river.” Under the War Measures Act, the mine development was accelerated to enhance steel production to supply the allied war effort. The lack of precaution or a closure plan has had ongoing repercussions for the people of Seine River, he added. Because of the river system “we are the most impacted community.”
Klyne said MNR documents from the 1960s warned against eating fish in the river due to high levels of mercury. Initial results of recent fish netting revealed the problem has not disappeared. Dr. Lee noted that some larger fish recently tested along the river were found to contain up to seven times the amount considered acceptable for consumption.
Areas downstream of Atikokan showed consistently higher than average mercury levels, but also higher than anticipated levels were also detected in fish upstream (east) of town, in a designated control lake which surprised Lee.
Still the study is really about looking to the future for the approximately 340 residents of the village (east of Mine Centre at Horsecollar Junction). “I guess we’re learning a lesson from Steep Rock and Caland” and other industrial projects that contaminated the territory, noted Klyne.
Results of the testing, which is being carried out by project manager John Kabatay with up to 10 seasonal employees in Seine River, and by two full-time and several summer employees in Naicatchewenin, will help the communities identify uncontaminated areas for development of safe, traditional food. Should any contamination occur from future mining development or other industry, the FNs need to identify areas off-river that won’t be vulnerable to water pollution, said Klyne. “We have to have an alternate food system.”
Potential traditional foods include wild rice – which was at one time a large part of the village’s economy but has been “destroyed” by hydro dams, said Klyne – blueberries, and cranberries. Testing will also look for potential contaminants from herbicide spraying of forests.
The study should also result in the development of guidelines for safe fish and game consumption, especially for many residents who have always relied on fish as a food staple. This is important because “our elders say we are going to continue eating the fish,” said Klyne.
He added that the study’s findings will help guide a monitoring committee which will established by the FN to assess exploration and development on its territory.
The year-long study at Naicatchewenin will also include water, fish, vegetation and game testing, look to promote safe traditional food consumption and to inform the band’s decision-making with respect to future development on its lands. The findings will be used “to bring attention to sources of contamination and provide our political leaders with information to lobby governments to clean it up,” said Jeremiah Windego, CEO of the Naicatchewenin Development Corp.
Naicatchewenin encompasses two parcels of land totalling about 2,500 hectares along Rainy Lake (260 reserve residents and 141 off-reserve), 60 km northwest of Fort Frances, “our focus is the watershed further downstream from Seine River and also on a few water sources that flow from an area near Straw Lake,” said Windego. The Straw Lake area is home to the historic Straw Lake Gold Mine and is again the site of exploration.
With a number of exploration projects on their lands, “we feel the best way to protect ourselves is by being proactive by providing a baseline study.”
He added that Naicatchewenin is pleased to partner with Seine River. “We look forward to a long and positive relationship with them, and with all people who also rely on Rainy Lake [including] for recreation.”
Dr. Lee praised the Seine River FN for its forward-thinking approach to resource protection and management and the knowledge of the land possessed by the study’s field staff in sample collection.
“It’s been a great experience working with the First Nation and they have really showed to me a great concern, ability and competency in [conducting the study],” he said. “I think these partnerships will be the way of the future for First Nations in managing their resources.”