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First Nations seek charges over Obed slurry spill

Sediment plume reached Lake Athabasca, water consultant says
By Marty Klinkenberg, Edmonton Journal
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.”

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