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Coal Smoke Adds to Band's Cancer Alarm

We Wai Kai say they were steamrolled by mill's permit approval.

Quentin Dodd 4 Nov
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A Campbell River area mill has been granted permission to continue to burn coal, outraging leaders of nearby First Nations band worried about high cancer rates among their people.

Less than a month after the We Wai Kai First Nation on BC's Quadra Island formally complained that the government hadn't met the law by consulting with them sufficiently, the permit approval was rushed into place, claim band leaders and their lawyer.

The granting of the permit to the Elk Falls mill is the latest twist in a struggle by the We Wai Kai to discover why, over the last decade, they've seen much higher levels of cancer at their Cape Mudge Village Reserve on Quadra Island than at their Quinsam Reserve in Campbell River.

The reason, they say, may be that the Cape Mudge reserve receives higher and more regular seasonal fallout from air-borne smoke-stack emissions from the nearby Catalyst (formerly Norske Skog) mill than does the Quinsam Reserve. For years the band has requested testing of mill emissions at Cape Mudge to shed light on their health crisis.

Toxic plume?

For several years the mill has been testing the burning of coal as an auxiliary fuel in its boilers, and applied to continue the practice indefinitely.

The We Wai Kai, through Vancouver lawyer Alan Donovan, informed the government they didn't want to see the mill's coal-burning test-period permit extended until proper monitoring studies have been done directly at the island-village reserve to assess the amount and nature of chemicals the site receives each year during the peak season from August through October. During that period, prevailing wind frequently blows the mill emissions over Quadra Island that eventually settle directly over the village.

On Thursday, the We Wai Kai received notification that the provincial waste management branch has granted Catalyst a permit to burn coal on an indefinite basis, according to band administrator Brian Kelly.

The permit-approval notification to the We Wai Kai indicates the mill will be required to install and operate an emissions-monitoring station at the village by April 30, as the band had long been requesting, says Kelly. But it's still not clear how long the monitoring station will be required to be in place, says Kelly.

Band demands more consultation

Kelly and other band leaders charge the government has failed to properly consult with the band.

He said after Donovan's letter went to regional waste manager Randy Alexander, the official extended the public-consultation period by a month to the end of October. Alexander let it be known that a decision could still be handed down before Oct. 31 if the government agency was satisfied it had addressed the First Nation's concerns and issues, and then held a meeting which lasted just a couple of hours with a few band officials.

"There wasn't time to meet with the (Band) Council," Kelly said, adding that the meeting had basically consisted of a question-and-answer exchange in which the government representatives asked questions to find out what the First Nation's main concerns were, and the Band personnel outlined their biggest concerns.

That, Kelly said, does not constitute sufficient consultation, and the council will discuss the situation early next week to decide its next move.

Mirror image communities

Backing the band on coal burning issue is the Sierra Club and activists running the Reach For Unbleached (RFU) campaign against pulp mill pollution.

The Cape Mudge Reserve and its sister community the Quinsam Reserve share similar age, gender and population-size figures, as well as identical lifestyle and diet patterns. Yet Cape Mudge villagers, exposed to more of the mill's air pollution, have three times the cancer rate recorded by its sister community over more than 10 years.

Recently, in preparation for its request to extend its temporary permit to burn coal, the Catalyst mill finally did launch a study of its air emissions. But the We Wai Kai claim that study wasn't going to include a monitoring or sampling station at the We Wai Kai's Cape Mudge village, even during the August-through-October period when the area of the village receives the plume of emissions from the mill's stacks most often.

'Extraordinarily high cancer death rates'

Donovan's letter to the provincial government on behalf of the First Nation, citing "respiratory ailments and extraordinarily high cancer death rates", reminded that Cape Mudge band members had for years asked unsuccessfully for suitable mill-emissions monitoring at the village.

Donovan said that studies should be conducted over at least two years, to cover that number of peak-fallout periods.

Upon learning of the terms of the permit approval on Thursday, Donovan, accused the government of "rushing ahead with little to no scientific data. They don't have the science and they haven't done the groundwork for a properly-informed decision."

"Additional contamination from the burning of coal would create further damage to the health, safety and enjoyment of life of this aboriginal community," says Donovan's letter on behalf of the band. In October, mill manager Norm Facey downplayed the band's concerns, telling Canadian Press that if the mill were causing health problems, mill employees would be the ones most affected and the Workers Compensation Board would have stepped in.

Facey also said that if the Elk Falls mill was not allowed to continue burning coal, it would seriously hurt the mill's bottom line.

Campbell River based journalist Quentin Dodd is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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