The exact effect of the Mount Polley spill on B.C. salmon is not yet known, but with the sockeye just entering the Fraser River – and more than one million fish heading directly for the region hit by the mining waste – First Nations and conservation groups are fearing the worst.
Concern about the sockeye's survival and whether the fish is safe to eat has emerged as another front in the resource battle between First Nations and governments, with aboriginal leaders charging the mining industry has lacked oversight, and questioning the point of the right to fish when the salmon is contaminated.
Bev Sellars, chief of the Soda Creek Indian Band, likened the area touched by the spill to a spiderweb.
"When you disturb one part of the spiderweb, it affects all of it. That's how this mine is going to affect everything," she said in an interview Wednesday.
Ms. Sellars said test results and data have not yet come in, but the spill will certainly lead to some dead fish. "How could there not be?" she asked. She said members of her community have already seen dead salmon.
Approximately 1.5 million sockeye had been expected to head to the Quesnel region this year. About 20 per cent are believed to have already entered the Fraser River as part of their journey, with the rest expected to begin the trek north by the end of the month.
A tailings pond at the Imperial Metals' copper and gold mine in central B.C. breached Monday, prompting the Cariboo Regional District to issue a strict water-use ban for the Quesnel Lake, Cariboo Creek, Hazeltine Creek and Polley Lake areas. The ban was then extended to include the entire Quesnel and Cariboo Rivers systems, right to the Fraser River.
Ms. Sellars said the sockeye run is immensely important to her band members.
"Our economy swims by in the river," she said. "… Some of our community members live on $150 a month. If we didn't have the fish and the wildlife, we wouldn't survive."
Ms. Sellars was one of several First Nations leaders to criticize the lack of information about the spill, and to call for greater oversight of such resource operations.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said the spill could have been prevented with vigorous government oversight, federally and provincially.
Ernest Kroeker, fisheries manager at the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council, expressed frustration at the lack of clarity on whether the fish could be consumed. He said a conference call with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans did not result in a definitive answer, because testing is still under way.
"The main concern for us is that this literally is right in the middle of fishing season," he said.
Mr. Kroeker said the lack of communication and slow response should worry a province in which other significant resource projects have been planned.
Peter Nicklin, a biologist with the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance, said it's hard to predict the effect of the spill at this point, but he's heard many concerns.
Craig Orr, executive director of conservation group Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said there has been a lack of data on just how toxic the spill was. Until that testing is complete, he said, it's difficult to predict the exact effect it will have on the fish.
Bill Bennett, B.C.'s Minister of Mines, said in a conference call that concern about the salmon is shared by everyone. He said he's hopeful answers will start coming in Thursday.
"There's no more important symbol in this province than salmon, and particularly important to First Nations. We will have a much better idea [Thursday afternoon] of the water quality in Quesnel Lake," he said. "I am hopeful that the company is correct, in terms of what they say, [that] their records show what is in the tailings and that will lead us to positive results in the sampling. But I don't know that. If we can get some even modestly positive results, that will take some of the angst out of this for everyone who worries about fish and clean water."
With a report from Andrea Woo