EDMONTON – The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) says it is “furious” with the “government’s weak response” to the coal mine spill near Hinton that leaked about 670 million litres of waste water into Athabasca River tributaries.
On Oct. 31, an earth berm broke at Coal Valley Resources and Sherritt International’s Obed Mountain coal mine near Hinton, Alta., spilling clay, mud, shale and coal particles into Apetowun and Plante creeks.
An Environment Canada database says the spill contained damaging compounds like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese.
“We are furious with the Alberta Energy Regulator and governments for the lack of response for the largest spill in Canadian history,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “We are asking for the resignation of Minister McQueen and Gerry Protti for failing to do their job.”
On Nov. 20, the Alberta government placed an environmental protection order on the coal mine owner.
Alberta Environment spokeswoman Jessica Potter said the companies have been taking steps to remediate the spill.
Potter said the environmental protection order formalizes the cleanup and gives timelines and deadlines.
“It offers us an opportunity to clearly outline expectations,” she said. “It’s a tool to ensure action is taken.”
But, the ACFN says an order nearly three weeks after a spill is too little too late.
“For three weeks we have been living in uncertainty about the safety and level of contamination of our water systems,” added Adam. “For us, it’s not just about our drinking water, it’s about our rights and culture.”
“Government and industry continually ignoring that our rights, our culture and our people rely on safe, clean eco-systems and waterways to continue our way of life,” said Lorraine Hoffman, Councillor for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
“We can’t keep the moose, caribou, bison, and fish from the contaminated plume as it travels downstream. This spill is just another example of both Alberta and Canada’s failure to protect the interests of not only First Nations, but the interests of all Canadians.”
The pollutants have been found to exceed safety levels as far as 40 kilometres downstream of the spill.
The province has advised all downstream communities not to draw water from the river while the slurry floats by.
Farmers have been advised to not let livestock drink from the river.
NDP critic Rachel Notley said the three-week wait for an order is unacceptable and suggested the government has not been forthcoming on the types of pollutants involved.
“It appears after they found out there was arsenic in the water, it still took them 18 days to disclose that to the people of Alberta.”
“Albertans simply cannot count on this government to keep our air, our land and our water safe,” stressed Notley.
The environmental protection order requires Sherritt and Coal Valley to put together plans for recovering the solids, mitigating effects on wildlife and managing mine waste and waste water. The companies must also develop a remediation strategy and a way to assess short- and long-term impacts.
Sherritt must also take steps to prevent waste-water solids in the creeks from entering the Athabasca River and develop and implement water sampling and monitoring.
With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press