The Grand Council of the Crees

The failure of the retaining dyke at the Opemiska Mine near Chapais

Posted: 2008-08-26

August 18,2008 (Nemaska, Eeyou Istchee) On June 23, 2008, the dyke retaining tailings - the residue from previous mineral processing operations - from the former Opemiska Copper Mine at Chapais gave way. A mixture of tailings and water from the basin which held the tailings was released into the creek downstream from the pond, and washed away the foundation of Highway 113 and of the railroad just to the south. The flood stranded travelers and resulted in the intervention of Environment Quebec's emergency services. The tailings were carried downstream to the Obatagamau and Chibougamau rivers, and there was understandable concern about the impacts of this dyke failure.

The purpose of this press release is to explain the initial response of the Grand Council of the Crees and the Cree Regional Authority to this incipent. In the words of Grand Chief Matthew Mukash: The Environment Department of the Cree Regional Authority has been following closely the events which have followed the failure of the dyke. The CRA has maintained close communications with officials from Quebec's Environment Ministry as well as with officials and representatives from Ouje-Bougoumou and Waswanipi. We were particularly concerned about hazards related to drinking water quality and the possibility of toxic effects on fish. There is relief that no serious effects on drinking water quality or on fish have been found. However, we will continue to follow the investigation, and we will report again once we have the reports and can respond to the proposed remedial measures'.

The Opemiska Mine closed in 1991, after operations extending over roughly 30 years. Apparently, the close-out measures were considered satisfactory by Quebec's Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife, which took over responsibility for the site. This government department is now responsible for remedial action, and we consider it important that the Cree be consulted about the remedial measures and involved in their implementation. We will work to make sure that this happens.

It is important to keep in mind that the engineering works at the Opemiska Mine date back to 1991, five years before the Mining Act was changed to tighten standards for closing mines and restoring areas disturbed by mining activities. The mining industry itself now remains responsible for restoration and for subsequent monitoring. The Cree communities have had very limited opportunities to become engaged in the closing of mines and later monitoring. The search for ways of actively involving the Cree communities in these processes is currently a priority for both the Cree Regional Authority and the Grand Council of the Crees.

In the case of the Opemiska spill, we have concentrated on problems of water quality. There has been concern about the transport downriver of the very fine silt-like material in the tailings pond (responsible for the grey appearance of surface waters), and about the possibility of abnormal levels of copper, zinc, iron and possibly other metals, which may result in toxicity to fish. The Public Health Department of the Cree Health Board has also been following this incident, and has issued an advisory notice to explain that there is no need for concern about eating fish taken from the rivers downstream (other than the usual cautions about mercury concentrations). The Cree Health Board also points out that surface waters, in any case, contain micro-organisms and should be boiled before drinking. We support these recommendations.

We expect to issue a second statement once we have received the government reports on water quality and on remedial measures, and have had an opportunity to assess these reports.

For further information contact: Mr. Cameron McLean, Environmental Management Specialist Cree Regional Authority, Montreal- 514-861-5837