Two native bands in northern British Columbia are going to court in an effort to force Rio Tinto Alcan Inc. to release more water into the Nechako River, where sturgeon and salmon are suffering because of altered flows.
In a notice of a civil claim filed Thursday in the B.C. Supreme Court, the Saik'uz and Stellate'en bands state that the Kenney Dam has damaged the environment by diverting water into a massive reservoir system that powers Alcan's aluminum smelter, in Kitimat.
The bands claim the dam, which was built in 1952 about 150 kilometres southwest of Prince George, has caused a decline in salmon, trout and sturgeon stocks, all of which native people have long relied on in traditional fisheries.
It says there has been a loss of spawning habitat, adverse fish impacts from temperature changes to the water, a disruption of natural flows, erosion of riverbanks, sedimentation problems and a loss of beaver, muskrat and other wildlife along the river corridor.
The notice of claim states that white sturgeon in the Nechako are making "gradual progress toward extinction," because the dam has disrupted their ability to spawn successfully.
David Luggi, chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council and a member of the Stellate'en band, said the Kenney Dam has been an issue for his people for decades, and they have grown tired of waiting for a remedy.
"We've worked hard to reach some sort of resolution with Alcan, but it's just not happening," Mr. Luggi said shortly after the claim was filed Thursday.
"There have been legal and political skirmishes over the years, all aimed at trying to bring water levels up to help restore sturgeon and to accommodate the migratory fish. But all of that has been to no avail. Nothing has changed. So after 60 years it seems like we are left with only this alternative," he said.
In 1997, the B.C. government and Alcan agreed to provide $50-million each to build a cold-water release facility at the Kenney Dam that would have partly addressed the complaints about inadequate flows in the Nechako River. In 2005, then-premier Gordon Campbell announced the facility would be built. But nothing ever came of it, and earlier this month an official from the Department of Fisheries testified at the Cohen Commission the proposed facility wasn't going ahead.
Mr. Luggi said he hopes the court case will force Alcan to work with the bands to come up with a plan to revive the Nechako River, which is a major tributary of the Fraser.
"This claim is all about water and the damages done by a lack of water," he said. "We realize there's not going to be an immediate solution.… somehow, even after the litigation is complete, there has to be some sort of process between the parties to figure out what will work."
The notice of claim asks the court to issue an injunction restraining Alcan from conducting its operations at the Kenney Dam and ordering the company "to release waters into the Nechako River" in sufficient quantities to abate the damage being done.
After diverting water from the Nechako, drying up the riverbed immediately below Kenney Dam, Rio Tinto Alcan returns some of the flow to the system through the Skins Lake Spillway, 80 kilometres to the west. Most of the water, however, is directed to the Kemano power complex farther to the west, near Kitimat.
Mr. Luggi acknowledged that it would be costly to Alcan if the company was required to release more water into the Nechako, because that water wouldn't be available to generate power at Kemano.
"It's designed to hit Rio Tinto right between the horns," he said of the lawsuit.
Bryan Tucker, a spokesman for Rio Tinto Alcan, said in an e-mail the company had not yet been served with the civil claim. "We'll take the opportunity to examine the claim once we receive it," he wrote. "But as the matter is before the court we will not comment further."