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A model of the proposed Site C Dam at the Community Consultation Office in Fort St. John, B.C.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

First Nations in the Peace River region of British Columbia are hemmed in by resource developments, which have dramatically eroded their traditional fishing grounds, the Joint Review Panel studying the Site C dam proposal has been told.

In a submission, Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly band listed a litany of developments that he said have already harmed most of the rivers in northeast British Columbia. He told the panel, which since last month has been holding hearings into B.C. Hydro's proposal for a third dam on the Peace, that the untamed section of the river where the dam would go is one of the last natural areas left.

"The main river systems in our area are [all] impacted. The Murray, the Wapiti, the Sukunka, the Pine, the Wolverine, the Parsnip River, the Crooked River …they're all impacted [and] have been molested," he said, naming 17 rivers. "This chunk here that you're looking at is the inundation zone of Site C. This is the last stretch of relatively unmolested rivers that we have."

Mr. Willson said mines are leaching pollutants into the rivers. The reservoir created by the W.A.C. Bennett dam in 1967 has released mercury into the watershed, he said, and jet boats driven by well-paid resource industry workers are roaring up previously quiet rivers.

"There's huge amounts of selenium that are being dumped into these rivers," he said, blaming the pollution on several coal mines. "We know there's health effects. Selenium is a naturally occurring metal, but high doses of selenium causes huge health problems."

He said the Pine River is being polluted by a leaking sulphur pit, and two river valleys may soon be disrupted by the construction of proposed gas pipelines.

Mr. Willson said a lot of the miners who live in Tumbler Ridge have jet boats, "and they're up and down the rivers all the time" disturbing areas where native anglers like to fish. "I don't have $30,000 that I can buy a jet boat with, so I have to use a canoe and paddle around. And these jet boats are just all over the place," he said.

Mr. Willson said studies by the band have found mercury in fish that have migrated long distances up rivers that connect to the Williston Reservoir, behind W.A.C. Bennett dam. Native fishermen have health concerns, he said, and are worried Site C will only make the mercury problem worse. "It's going to affect the Moberly River, and it's going to affect the Halfway River," he said. "And [those rivers are] the closest … areas that we can get to without having to be worrying about methylmercury fish."

Mr. Willson rejected the idea that B.C. Hydro could compensate for the loss of traditional fishing areas by creating new fishing opportunities in the Site C reservoir. He said B.C. Hydro sought to improve fishing in Williston Reservoir by introducing kokanee, a landlocked salmon that was not previously found in the watershed and is not a traditional food fish for local bands.

"The introduction of a foreign species of fish into the ecosystem, kokanee, B.C. Hydro had no discussions with us," he said. "There may be biomass in the Site C reservoir, but it's not a biomass that the local First Nations prefer to eat."

Mr. Willson said he is afraid the bigger environmental picture isn't being examined in the Site C review. "One of … our concerns is that nobody has looked at what we have been talking about. B.C. has refused to take a look at the cumulative impacts. They're identifying the Site C as its own little impact," he said.

"Well, we have cumulative impacts in our mandate, and so we're trying to understand them," Harry Swain, the chairman of the review panel, said in thanking Mr. Willson for his presentation.

The joint review panel, which began sitting early in December, is hearing submissions in Fort St. John until Jan. 23. The comments of Mr. Willson and Mr. Swain are contained in transcripts from Monday.

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