The Right to a Healthy Environment: An Update on Quesnel Lake and the Mount Polley Disaster
Many of us are looking forward to the late summer when physical distancing measures may ease and we can begin to venture out again to our favorite campsites, cabins, and fishing spots. Last August, I spent a week in British Columbia’s Cariboo region when I led a caravan of kids and adults from Vancouver’s lower mainland to the shores of Quesnel Lake in Secwepemc traditional territory.
Over that August long weekend, we joined dozens of residents and their supporters to celebrate the community’s resilience over the five long years since the Mount Polley mine disaster of August 2014.
It was incredibly special to share with the Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake (CCQL) hundreds of beautiful solidarity messages from Amnesty activists telling them that despite the years that have passed since the disaster, they are not forgotten, that the rights of Indigenous peoples matter and that residents deserve justice for the disaster that affected their lives and altered the western basin of Quesnel Lake in ways we are only beginning to understand.
This August holiday weekend will mark another grim anniversary.
Justice delayed is Justice Denied
Both the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights and the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have called on Canada to hold those responsible for the disaster to account and provide residents and Indigenous peoples with health impact studies and remedy.
Despite these important calls from international human rights experts and a recommendation from investigators that the Crown lay criminal charges against those responsible, Amnesty International is extremely disappointed to report that charges have not yet been laid. There is no statutory deadline for laying criminal charges in Canada which means that residents and Indigenous peoples harmed by the disaster have no way of knowing when justice will be served. Meanwhile, Imperial Metals, Mount Polley Mining Corporation’s (MPMC) parent company, continues to operate business as usual.
Mount Polley II?
Although the company wound down operations at the Mount Polley site near Likely, BC in 2019 citing low copper prices on the international market, in February 2020 the company announced that it would begin exploring a new deposit adjacent to the current site. Given the lack of remedy for the 2014 disaster, the announcement has raised red flags for Indigenous communities and settler residents and prompted a fresh wave of concern.
Companies like MPMC have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever it operates and this includes participating in meaningful consultations with Indigenous peoples and respecting their right to self-determination. Amnesty International expects MPMC to comply with its responsibilities as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples to determine what forms of economic activity takes place within their traditional territories in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which British Columbia enshrined in legislation in November, 2019.
In recognition of the enormous human rights and environmental gaps in BC’s mining regulations exposed by the Mount Polley disaster, a coalition of 30 civil society and Indigenous organizations in issued a set of recommendations to the BC government that seek to strengthen the Province’s mining regulatory regime.
It is time for British Columbia to adopt these recommendations and make it harder for companies to abuse human rights, pollute the environment, not pay their fair share, and walk away from their environmental and human rights responsibilities. The BC government must ensure that any approval of exploration or expansion permits sought by MPMC is subject to rigorous scrutiny in line with its obligations to protect human rights and the environment.
Ongoing Challenges and Appeals of Water Discharge Permit
In February 2020, MPMC filed a Notice of Appeal to the BC Environmental Appeal Board, seeking further amendments to its 2017 water discharge permit. The permit allows the company to discharge filtered mine waste into Quesnel Lake for a 5-year period, ending in 2022 and requires it to research alternative methods of water treatment and dispersal at the site. The company’s appeal notes that putting a time limit on water discharges into the lake was no longer reasonable or desirable, particularly in light of its expansion ambitions. It is asking the Appeal Board to strike the time limit terms contained in the permit and to allow it to continue to send waste directly and indefinitely into Quesnel Lake.
The CCQL and land defenders will not stand for it. In 2017, the CCQL launched an appeal of discharge permit, calling on the BC Environmental Appeal Board to withdraw the company’s discharge permit. They are waiting for a hearing date. You can read the report commissioned by a qualified expert to support their case. After exhausting all other avenues available, the CCQL believes an appeal to the Board is the last legal remedy available to prevent further damage to Quesnel Lake from the Mount Polley copper mine.
For more on this story, please see our previous post that tells the story of the CCQL’s Christine McLean’s crusade to protect Quesnel Lake. And please stay tuned for information about the hearing date for the CCQL’s appeal which will take place in Victoria, BC in 2020.
Light on the Horizon
As the summer approaches, however, we should not despair. The British Columbia government recently revived a technical committee to review testing data obtained from Quesnel Lake. BC scientists say that public campaigns by groups like Amnesty International and others have helped bring the government back to the table and this shows that BC is concerned about what is happening to Quesnel Lake.
By continuing to support the CCQL, Indigenous water defenders speaking up in defense of Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe (the Greatest of Lakes, also known as Quesnel Lake) and the right to self-determination, as well as scientists dedicating their lives to studying the effects of the disaster on the lake, we can help them obtain the justice and remedy they so richly deserve.
To keep informed of the CCQL’s appeal hearing dates, please visit the CCQL blog and consider donating to their legal fund.
For members keen to learn more from scientists studying the effects of climate change, forest fires and the Mount Polley mine disaster on Quesnel Lake, please check out the Quesnel River Research Centre website and look for an announcement about their public open house on Saturday, October 3, 2020.
A note of thanks:
To mark World Water Day this year, we asked Amnesty members to call on the BC government to pull the water discharge pipes from Quesnel Lake and protect this pristine environment from further industrial pollution. Over 7100 e-actions so far have been taken and thousands more people engaged over social media. Your voice is making a difference! THANK YOU!