Category Archives: Health and Environment

Rafe: Canada’s Health Care system needs intensive care

Photo: Bob M~ / Flickr CC Licence
Photo: Bob M~ / Flickr CC Licence

Well, we’ve let it go a very long time – perhaps for so long that a better brand of chaos is all we can hope for with reform. I’m talking about our health care system in this country.

In its most recent global rankings, the World Health Organization had us at number 30 in the world as a health care system. Admitting all of the failings of statistics, it still seems only yesterday we were boasting that we had the best. What is more troublesome is that no matter what number we are, the system is lousy. We are a hell of a long way from “Free medicare” or “socialized healthcare”.

False advertising

Blame is very easy and there’s no shortage of culprits never forgetting Pogo’s “we have met the enemy and he is us”. 

It may be that by procrastinating for so long, we have presented ourselves with a problem which is all but insoluble.

The term “health care” is almost impossible to define in any way that makes sense factually or fiscally. Start with a pretty basic deficiency in our system – dental care. No one in their their right mind would allege that care of the teeth is not a very important health issue. We don’t cover it, the UK does.

From there, the irrationalities move into ever-widening circles. I have received enormous relief over the years from my chiropractor and I hate to think of what life would have been like without his help. But, I must pay a large portion of my treatment. Everyone reading this can think of some important, nigh unto critical, medical cost that they must pay for personally. Even an emergency vehicle to hospital.

As if this weren’t enough, the constitutional jurisdiction for healthcare is provincial, but because smaller provinces can’t afford it, power of the federal purse has brought Ottawa in. Thus, the essential decisions are made by the federal government after “consultation” with the 10 provinces over coverage, while the provinces (mostly) administer the care. If you’ve read this far you will see more confusion right around the corner and you are right to do so.

BC’s double whammy

BC Health Minister Terry Lake (Province of BC/Flickr)
BC Health Minister Terry Lake (Province of BC/Flickr)

British Columbia is the retirement province for most of the west of the country and much of the rest, thus has substantially higher geriatric costs. Because it’s also a young, growing province it has a double problem.

I well remember, as minister, raising this with the federal minister of the day and pointing out that this not being considered in fiscal transfer was simply unfair. She replied blankly that she couldn’t give one province more money than another, especially a rich one!

Prescription for trouble

One of the huge changes since my time has been in the field of pharmaceuticals and scientific development.

Not long ago, pharmaceutical cost was the occasional prescription from the doctor and the cost, while annoying, wasn’t overbearing. Now, as a senior citizen, my pharmaceutical pills, despite private insurance, are staggering. Uncovered pharmaceutical costs have overtaken doctor costs, which are high in themselves.

Rationing care

CT scan machine (Defence Images/Flickr)
CT scan machine (Defence Images/Flickr)

In 1979, when I became minister, the CAT scan had just arrived – an enormously important diagnostic tool which every hospital, big and small, wanted. The problem was they cost $1 million each and the province simply did not have enough money to immediately outfit everyone, meaning a form of rationing, and hospitals down the list weren’t happy campers.

Soon, private citizens began to raise the money privately for their favourite hospital. You can quickly see, I’m sure, two big problems: not only did that upset the system, it also raised the nasty question, “Who will pay to run these new machines, which have not been accounted for in the provincial budget?” What seemed to be such a wonderful example of civic generosity, became a societal and a fiscal nightmare.

I remember giving a talk to the staff at Royal Inland Hospital, in my constituency of Kamloops, and during the question period, a nurse said emphatically “Minister you can’t put a price on a human life!”

My response was “in fact, we do that every hour of the day in terms of where we place our funds on behalf of the citizens. It’s how, when and where we place those funds that often determines who lives and who doesn’t.”

Tough choices

Obviously, we must re-examine our health care system in Canada. That’s the easy decision. Now, how the hell do we do it and what are the basic ground rules? How do we deal with the matter of jurisdictions and who is responsible for raising how much of the needed funds; then, of course, who is responsible for the rules for its distribution?

Until we decide on a definition of medical care, what will be covered and what will not, we’re at sea. And it’s critical that we find a mechanism for dealing with change – and then we must decide how much we’re prepared to spend.

Photo: Dr.Farouk/Flickr
Photo: Dr.Farouk/Flickr

I am not going to pretend that a short time as health minister in one province has conferred even the slightest degree of medical wisdom upon me. What I can say is that almost everyone involved in the system thinks “they know”, to the exclusion of all else, where and what kind of medical wisdom is required. These are very sincere people but consider this – I was at a conference many years ago and listened to a heated argument between two health experts on the use of tobacco. One spoke of the obvious drawbacks we all know about and the cost to society, while the other was saying the more people that smoke the less the geriatric cost would be – it’s cheaper on the system when people die young and, therefore, people should be encouraged to smoke! There was a little tongue in cheek involved I suspect. 

Now, this is not the centrepiece of the health debate but I just mention it to demonstrate that there are very few issues where everyone agrees.

Clearly, we must start afresh in our discussions and re-visit the essential decisions upon which we base all expenses. Critically, we must develop a protocol for changing those decisions when the need arises. Our inability to adapt has created the enormous distortions we must now try to rectify or it will just get worse and worse.

In this case, the devil may not be in the details but in coming up with a vehicle within which to determine what those details are.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION – Country Ranking  / (Per Capita Expenditure)

1 France (4)

2 Italy (11)

3 San Marino (21)

4 Andorra (23)

5 Malta (37)

6 Singapore (38)

7 Spain (29)

8 Oman (62)

9 Austria (6)

10 Japan (13)

11 Norway (16)

12 Portugal (27)

13 Monaco (12)

14 Greece (30)

15 Finland (18)

16 Luxembourg (5)

17 Netherlands (9)

18 United Kingdom (26)

19 Republic of Ireland Ireland (25)

20 Switzerland (2)

21 Belgium (15)

22 Colombia (49)

23 Sweden (7)

24 Cyprus (39)

25 Germany (3)

26 Saudi Arabia (63)

27 United Arab Emirates (35)

28 Israel (19)

29 Morocco (99)

30 Canada (10)

31 United States (1)

32 Australia (17)

Fracking, Site C and the mystery of Hudson's Hope water contamination

Fracking, Site C and the mystery of Hudson’s Hope water contamination

Fracking, Site C and the mystery of Hudson's Hope water contamination
Five year-old River Summer looks on at Brenot Creek landslide (Photo: Leigh Summer)

A series of landslides above the northeast BC community of Hudson’s Hope has been dumping contaminated soils into several local creeks, extending now to the Peace River. Local landowners whose water supply has been affected are demanding answers.

But Mayor Gwen Johansson, who has been monitoring the situation since trouble first appeared last summer, says all she really has is a lot of questions.

The three biggest ones are:

1. Did nearby fracking operations – or related wastewater disposal – cause the landslides?

2. Is fracking wastewater the source of the contamination unleashed into a series of interconnected creeks?

3. If not, and the the contamination is naturally-occurring in local soils, as the Oil and Gas Commission contends, then what are the implications for the proposed Site C Dam, which could further erode and carry contaminated soils downstream for decades to come?

What we do know

Slide at Brenot Creek (submitted)
Slide at Brenot Creek (submitted)

Since the summer of 2014, the ongoing slides have spewed sediment laced with toxic heavy metals – including lead, arsenic, barium, cadmium and lithium – into Brenot Creek, which flows into Lynx Creek, which in turn feeds into the Peace River. Large bars of sediment have formed in Brenot and Lynx Creeks and contaminated water has now nearly reached another major river in the area, the Halfway – according to local landowner, Ross Peck. 

Farmer Leigh Summer, whose property lies below the slide area, has watched with horror as Brenot Creek has become packed with toxic silt. “Now it’s so muddy that when you put your hand in it, if you have an inch of water over top of your hand, you can’t see your hand,” Summer told the Alaska Highway News. “There used to be fish in the creek, but it’s basically dead today.” 

His neighbour, Rhee Simpson, has seen the well she depends on run dry, likely filled in with sediment. “I have no water,” Simpson, a resident and farmer near the creek for 62 years, told the CBC earlier this week. “You can’t play in it. You can’t fish in it. You can’t drink it. Your stock can’t drink it. Someone has to do something to get our water back.”

We also know that there were fracking operations in close proximity to the slide approximately 3 years ago, with more in the surrounding areas of Talisman (now Progress Energy/Petronas’) Farrell Creek play – but likely not close enough to be related. See the map below – provided by the District of Hudson’s Hope (click to expand).

Fracking Map_Lynx, Brenot Creeks

We know that the shale gas extraction process is associated with increased seismic activity – as we were reminded by the recent 4.6 magnitude quake in Wonowon, some 70 km away, as the crow flies. This is most frequently associated with the injection of “produced water” (used fracking fluids) into waste wells to dispose of it underground after a well has been fracked – though in some cases the fracking process itself can trigger seismic activity. 

We also know that the terrain in this region is no stranger to landslides, as it’s composed of loose materials like shale, sand and clay. That’s always been a strong argument against Site C Dam by local landowners who know this. The Williston Reservoir, West of the planned Site C reservoir has seen massive expansion since its flooding in 1968, gobbling up the banks of the water body far beyond original predictions, due to the instability of the soils. The terrain East of there, where Site C is proposed, is even less stable. More on that in a moment.

See no evil

Fracking operations near Hudson's Hope in 2012 (Damien Gillis)
Fracking near Hudson’s Hope in 2012 (Damien Gillis)

The testing of the Brenot creek slide and contamination been pretty pitiful thus far, given what’s at stake. The OGC has declared the toxins “naturally occurring”, maintaining, “there’s no evidence that fracking operations are the source of the contamination – which has the ring of the sort of technicality-based, legalistic denials we heard for years from the tobacco industry. As Carl Sagan said, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” Bear in mind, too, that the OGC is hardly known for its tough, independent monitoring and regulation of the oil and gas industry.

The municipality spent its own money to hire independent hydrologist and shale gas expert Dr. Gilles Wendling to conduct some preliminary tests beginning last summer, but it lacks the resources to carry the load with the kind of in-depth, ongoing testing required here. According to the mayor in a letter to the community published in January, 2015 (see page 22), “Dr. Wendling’s readings were consistently above guidelines for the heavy metals, and the origin was sand in the water coming out of the bank at a slide on Brenot Creek.”

Those findings prompted the District to install a water advisory in September, 2014, which the Ministry of Environment supported, formally warning people to avoid the water for personal use, animals and irrigation.

In January, Johansson wrote, “The MoE representative said they have no plans to do anything further, other than file a report. He said he expected that eventually the creek would cleanse itself.”

Well, a year later, the creek has not cleansed itself. According to Johansson, The Ministry Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) has a landslide specialist who has been monitoring expansion of slide. He has explained that because the slide is so vertical, we can expect that it will continue moving for some time to come.

Mayor Johansson notes that in the old days, this is the kind of work MoE could have been counted on to carry out in a thorough manner but they haven’t been back to investigate further to date. In the wake of recent media attention on the issue, though, officials have indicated they are coming up for a site visit by helicopter next week. If what they see from the air is enough cause for concern – as it well should be – then Johansson hopes they will return to take soil samples and conduct thorough testing.

Another possible culprit

bennett dam-2
The Williston Reservoir and Bennett Dam

Landowner Leigh Summer isn’t convinced that shale gas activity is responsible – or at least the sole culprit – for the slides. “I was pretty convinced initially, but the flow seems to increase with the level of Williston (Reservoir) increasing, so I have a feeling it’s a conjunction of the two,” he told the Alaska Highway News.

“There’s something going on with the aquifers underneath…I suspect, in my mind, that there’s some connection between one or the other, or both.”

Pandora’s box

Regardless of the cause of the slides, if the OGC is correct and this erosion has simply unleashed naturally-occurring contaminants in the soil – a sort of opening up of Pandora’s Box – that’s a frightening prospect indeed.

Plainly put, if fracking operations are the source of the contamination, that’s bad news. But if they aren’t, that’s perhaps even worse news when you consider that the proposed Site C Dam would engulf much of the area below the slide, closer to the river, and potentially continue carrying contamination far downstream well into the distant future.

“If these contaminants are in the soil, how far along the Peace Valley do they extend?” asks Mayor Johansson. The fact is, given the dearth of studies, we don’t yet have a clue. And the implications could be massive for the region – and well beyond – as Summer notes:

“We are really subjecting ourselves to the risk of having a contaminated reservoir which, obviously, contaminates the river all the way to the Slave (River) and to the Mackenzie (River) and the Arctic Ocean, so it’s pretty significant.”

Either way, we need serious, credible testing now. The Clark government is already spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars, rushing ahead with early Site C construction 70 KM downstream, at the proposed dam site. This despite BC Hydro’s own acknowledgement that the power from the dam won’t be required until at least 2029! If this naturally-occurring contamination extends for a great distance along the banks of the Peace River, then building Site C and flooding this area is a nightmare scenario we would do well to avoid.


“Captured” environmental regulator thinks of Kitimat smelter owner Rio Tinto as “client”

Rio Tinto Alcan's Kitimat smelter (Rio Tinto Alcan/Canada Newswire)
Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kitimat smelter (Rio Tinto Alcan/Canada Newswire)

Rweprinted with permission from DeSmog Canada.

Move over Duffy diaries. There’s a new black book in town.

That’s the detailed work journal of B.C. Ministry of Environment senior official Frazer McKenzie, which recounts conversations between ministry officials and Rio Tinto Alcan while the company was applying for a permit to increase aluminum production at its Kitimat smelter.

Frazer McKenzie was a diligent and thorough employee. He documented ongoings with Rio Tinto Alcan within government that we’d otherwise never know about,” lawyer Chris Tollefson told DeSmog Canada.

The hen guarding the fox house

During the application process, Rio Tinto Alcan financed McKenzie’s position at the Ministry of Environment through a secondment agreement and government officials repeatedly refer to the company as a “client.”

DeSmog Canada has learned this parlance has become commonplace between ministry officials and industry. Indeed, much of what occurred in the Rio Tinto Alcan case appears to be standard operating procedure.

McKenzie’s journal — made public due to an appeal — offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of B.C.’s Ministry of Environment.

The ministry has argued that it agreed to allow the company to fund McKenzie’s position because of concerns there would be “inadequate staffing to deal with the application” otherwise. Such arrangements with industry are not entirely unusual due to chronic underfunding.

Rio Tinto Alcan’s application, which was approved by B.C. in 2013, granted the company the right to increase sulphur dioxide emissions in the Kitimat airshed by 56 per cent.

Sulphur dioxide is released from the combustion of sulphur-laden fossil fuels — such as the petroleum coke used to smelt aluminum — and irritates eyes, noses, throats and lungs. People with asthma, children and the elderly are at increased risk from sulphur dioxide exposure.

Two Kitimat elementary school teachers — Emily Toews, who suffers from asthma, and Lis Stannus — are now challenging that permit approval through the B.C. Environmental Appeals Board, arguing the project threatens human and environmental health. The appeal, being heard by a tribunal in Kitimat, is in its third week.

This case really does represent a situation where you have a regulator that has gotten too close to a powerful and well-resourced private interest that it is supposed to be independently regulating,” Tollefson told the tribunal.

black diaryCentral to the tribunal are the extensive notes McKenzie took while the Ministry of Environment, including manager of environmental protection Ian Sharpe, and Rio Tinto Alcan discussed the company’s permit application.

On Monday, Sharpe told the appeals panel Rio Tinto Alcan was “after comfort in the authorization process” and that he discussed the possibility of creating “some kind of comfort letter or document…that would give Rio Tinto Alcan’s board the comfort they needed to get on with funding.”

This is B.C.’s version of the Duffy senate scandal: it shows how deeply comfortable government and industry are with one other,” said Richard Overstall, counsel for Emily Toews.

BC left sulphur dioxide limits unanswered

McKenzie’s notes show the provincial government was aware of scrubbing technology — used to eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions from smelters around the world — but chose not to require Rio Tinto Alcan to put that technology in place.

Under cross-examination, McKenzie read aloud his notes, which referenced Rio Tinto Alcan’s request to eliminate the mention of scrubbers from an internal memo. He also noted a phone call from a deputy minister who “did not want to let a little SO2 get in the way” of Rio Tinto Alcan’s project.

McKenzie’s journals also show the company was anxious about the projected increase of sulphur dioxide emissions from the modernization project and wanted regulatory certainty to calm investors.

Construction on Kitimat smelter modernization (Bechtel)
Construction on Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kitimat smelter modernization (Bechtel)

Rio Tinto Alcan requested specific sulphur dioxide discharge limits during the creation of a joint memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the province. Under the MOU, the province committed to regulate Rio Tinto Alcan under sulphur dioxide standards from the 1970s — and guaranteed those weak rules would stay in effect for the project until at least the end of 2018, even though the province introduced much stronger interim standards in 2014.

Those weak standards were eventually dropped altogether by Sharpe, who said he began to consider them “obsolete,” but told the panel he could not recall when. No new standards for Rio Tinto Alcan’s smelter have been put into place and, according to Sharpe, won’t be in place until B.C. or the federal government mandate them after conducting a full public consultation.

McKenzie’s notes make numerous mentions to Rio Tinto Alcan’s desire for “certainty” regarding potential SO2 standards.

SO2 is troubling to Alcan,” McKenzie wrote in one entry entered into evidence. “Insisting they have limit ahead of time — something in writing.”

McKenzie noted in one internal correspondence:

[quote]Alcan is anxious to get green light…to provide good news on project to stakeholders.[/quote]

The province approved the company’s permit in 2013 but did not release an environmental monitoring plan until 18 months later. Although the modernization project is very close to complete, it remains without sulphur dioxide emission limits.

Appellants point to regulatory capture

Between the period of 2007 and 2013, McKenzie was seconded to Rio Tinto Alcan, which funded his position. He worked closely with the company during the permit application process.

Tollefson argues Sharpe’s close ties with Rio Tinto Alcan influenced and ultimately fettered his decision-making.

The evidence shows that government of B.C. and Rio Tinto Alcan “deliberated carefully over the language” contained in their agreement “knowing that it might be challenged in court on the ground that it fettered the discretion of the decision-maker charged with granting the permit,” he told the panel.

[quote]We need to reinvigorate the idea of a regulator as a fearless public defender[/quote]

That was not the case with Ministry of Environment officials, who, according to Tollefson, throughout years of documents refer to Rio Tinto Alcan as a “client” and tend to view the world through “industry-coloured glasses.”

Overstall said there was a “slow creep” of industry’s interests into government activities.

That’s what we see with the Duffy scandal: these guys get so involved they lose their compass,” he said.

No one wakes up one morning and decides, ‘I’m going to get cozy with industry.’ It’s more of a slow creep,” Overstall said. “They make small decisions one after another behind closed doors thinking what they’re doing is okay until suddenly the public spotlight is shone on them.”


Rio Tinto skips air scrubbers to cut costs at Kitimat smelter

Rio Tinto's Kitimat smelter (Damien Gillis)
Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kitimat smelter (Damien Gillis)

The following story is republished with permission from Desmog Canada

When the B.C. Ministry of Environment approved Rio Tinto Alcan’s application to modernize its aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C., local resident Emily Toews assumed that would mean an improvement in the plant’s emissions.

But the modernization project, which will increase the plant’s production, will raise sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 56 per cent from 27 to 42 tonnes per day.

Toews, who suffers from asthma, told a tribunal in Kitimat Monday she decided to remain in Kitimat in 2010, rather than move to West Kelowna with her husband, because she had “previous knowledge that the modernization project would reduce emissions.”

The tribunal, hosted by the B.C. Environmental Appeals Board, is entering its third week in Kitimat after two weeks in Victoria. The board began investigating the government’s approval of the Rio Tinto Alcan modernization project after Toews and fellow Kitimat resident Lis Stannus asked it to overturn the decision, saying increased sulphur dioxide emissions endangered their community’s health.

The project, granted approval from the B.C. government in 2013, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the smelter, but not sulphur dioxide emissions because Rio Tinto Alcan was not required to introduce scrubbers, commonly used in smelters to remove the pollutant from airborne emissions.

Toews, who has a 10-month old child and is a kindergarten teacher, said she’s worried about the impact the increased pollution will have on the community’s children.

Sulphur dioxide, a pungent pollutant that results primarily from fossil fuel combustion, irritates the skin as well as the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Exposure to sulphur dioxide aggravates the respiratory systems of asthmatics and is known to negatively affect the respiratory systems of children and the elderly.

She told the tribunal that several children in the Kitimat school where she teaches suffer from asthma.

Working at an elementary school there are a lot of illnesses going around,” she said. “During allergy season I often have to help kids, or help administer their medication before they go outdoors.”

”I’m concerned for other people in the community,“ she said.

Emily Toews in Kitimat (Carol Linnit)
Emily Toews in Kitimat (Carol Linnitt)

Toews questioned why, if solutions like scrubbers are a possibility, the province didn’t require them when approving the smelter modernization project.

Scrubbers, which can either create dry sulphur waste or can use seawater which converts SO2 to sulfates for a benign release into the ocean, are commonly used in European smelters.

Toews told the panel she cannot see why the province wouldn’t require Rio Tinto Alcan to employ scrubbers to eliminate the SO2 emissions problem in Kitimat.

No I’m not opposed to the modernization project, however I am opposed to increasing one emission — sulphur dioxide — and I don’t understand why that emission was left out of this ‘state of the art’ modernization process,” Toews said.

[quote]I’d like this panel to consider having Rio Tinto produce the best state of the art reduction in emissions possible with the technologies that are available and to my knowledge there are technologies that are available to do that.[/quote]

An expert witness who previously gave testimony during the hearings told the panel Rio Tinto Alcan was avoiding paying for the installment of scrubbers and thereby externalizing the costs of SO2 emissions onto the health of local households.

Chris Tollefson, a lawyer representing Toews’ co-apellant Lis Stannus, said the company is primed to install scrubbers in a “plug and play” manner.

There’s no dispute on the evidence that these scrubbers can be installed with relative ease,” he told the panel.

[quote]In fact, the [Kitimat modernization project] has been designed and built with an onsite area specifically set aside for scrubbers to be retrofitted…on what the experts describe is a ‘plug and play’ basis.[/quote]

Tollefson said the company’s issue with scrubbers is cost — an estimated $100 to $200 million for installation, not including operating costs. The company estimated the modernization project would cost $3.3 billion but overruns have the project nearing $5 billion last summer.

Rio Tinto Alcan has “made this very clear to the provincial government…that they simply do not want to spend the money.” Government officials from the B.C. Ministry of Environment were also too concerned with Rio Tinto’s interests, Tollefson previously argued, alleging the project’s approval without scrubbers at the provincial level is the result of regulatory capture.

Tollefson said he is asking the panel to “weigh the financial benefit to Rio Tinto Alcan of not being held to a rigorous environmental standard against the cost to the environment and human health of allowing Rio Tinto Alcan to increase itsSO2 emissions by 56 per cent.”

The hearings, conducted by the B.C. Environmental Appeals Board, are currently underway in Kitimat.

Hudson's Hope issues water quality advisory as heavy metals detected

Hudson’s Hope issues water quality advisory as heavy metals detected

Hudson's Hope issues water quality advisory as heavy metals detected
Hudson’s Hope, BC (

A water quality advisory has been issued by the District of Hudson’s Hope, in northeast BC.

Residents are being warned not to drink or use water from Lynx and Brenot Creeks.

The district advises against using it for “drinking water, livestock watering, and irrigation due to the presence of heavy metals at concentrations above the Canadian Water Quality Guidelines.”

“Boiling water will not make the water potable,” the district warns.

[quote]Abstain from using the water until further notice.


The contaminants discovered include:

  • aluminum
  • arsenic
  • barium
  • cadmium
  • chromium
  • iron
  • lead
  • manganese
  • uranium

The source of the contamination – and whether it is related to local shale gas activity – is unclear at the moment.

The Ministry of Environment has been alerted of the situation, the advisory notes.

[quote]The district is conducting additional investigations and will provide updated information as soon as available.[/quote]

District Office contact: 250-783-9901 /

Mount Polley- Interior Health issues new warning against drinking Quesnel Lake water

Mount Polley: Interior Health issues new warning against drinking Quesnel Lake water

Mount Polley- Interior Health issues new warning against drinking Quesnel Lake water
Debris pouring into Quesnel Lake (Photo: Farhan Umedaly, Vovo Productions /

An advisory from Interior Health yesterday raises fresh questions about the quality of drinking water from Quensnel Lake following the Mount Polley tailings dam breach.

“Although test results continue to show that water sourced from Quesnel Lake is safe to drink, reports indicate that water quality is changing as lake water and the sediment plume shifts,” the advisory notes, raising doubt about the earlier lifting of a drinking water ban for the town of Likely, on Quensnel Lake.

The reappearance of water quality concerns on Quesnel Lake may be linked to the government’s initial cleanup plan, which has involved pumping contaminated water out of Polley Lake, next to the collapsed dam, and into the larger and deeper Quesnel Lake, via Hazeltine Creek.

“Residents who source their water from Quesnel Lake may notice increased turbidity, sediment, and/or a change in taste or odour,” the latest advisory states.

[quote]In these cases, residents may wish to consider using alternate sources for their water. Specifically individuals are reminded they should not be drinking cloudy water…Interior Health is continuously reviewing data provided by Ministry of Environment.[/quote]

The warning comes on the heels of independent biologist Alexandra Morton’s documentation of a mysterious blue film covering Quesnel Lake and river – and the discovery of elevated levels of toxic selenium in fish found in Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake.

“A Do Not Use order for drinking water, personal, and recreational use remains in effect for the impact zone directly affected by the by the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond breach,” the advisory reminds the public. The ongoing Do Not Use order encompasses Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, and “the area within 100 metres of the visible sediment plume where Hazeltine Creek runs into Quesnel Lake”.

A map of water restriction areas can be found here.

As for what to make of these conflicting statements coming from government officials, local biologist and consultant to Soda Creek First Nation Rick Holmes recently told Desmog.caAt this stage the impacts on Quesnel Lake are virtually unknown.” 


Is Mount Polley making people sick- Anecdotal evidence, questions mount

Is Mount Polley making people sick? Anecdotal clues, questions mount

Is Mount Polley making people sick- Anecdotal evidence, questions mount
Hazeltine Creek following Mount Polley Mine’s tailings dam breach (Photo: Chris Blake)

A series of anecdotal reports of illness from suffered by people in close proximity to the Mount Polley Mine tailings dam breach is prompting a local First Nation to push the premier for a study of potential airborne contaminants – and calls for an independent inquiry into the still-unfolding disaster.

“I was very sick”

Sylvia Palm is a 40-year resident of Likely, BC. Her home, near Cedar Point Park on Quesnel Lake, is 5 km northeast of Hazeltine Creek, where debris began flowing out of Polley Lake after Imperial Metals’ tailings dam burst on August 4.

At that moment, early in the morning, Palm was sleeping upstairs with the doors and windows wide open, to keep cool from the summer heat. Later that BC Day, as water and sludge from the breached pond rushed towards Quesnel Lake, she she began to realize “something wasn’t right.”

[quote]By 1 pm, I started to feel burning and irritation in my eyes and nose.[/quote]

Palm knew she had to get out of town. By 3 pm, she had left the Likely area.

She would return on Wednesday, only to pack a few things in order to relocate to her sister’s, some 20km away. She spent the evening in the house, this time with the doors and windows closed.

“When I woke up, I was very sick,” Palm recalls. “My eyes were sore, my nose was burning, and I had this intense headache concentrated in my forehead – unlike any I’ve ever experienced.”

That morning, she left to stay at her sister’s, where she remains today.

[quote]As soon as was I out of the area, things began alleviating quickly, but it was a full 48 hours before I felt remotely normal – although I wouldn’t say that I’ve felt truly normal since.[/quote]

Film on the water

Mountain Ash on Sylvia Palm's property, displaying browned foliage (Sylvia Palm)
Mountain Ash displaying browned foliage (Sylvia Palm)

After spending the next four days at her sister’s, Palm returned home for just an hour a day on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. She went back mainly to take water samples, photos and video of her property. “Every time I go back, I feel my face burning in my nose membranes and eyes,” Palm says.

What she saw was troubling. She observed browned foliage on mountain ash, hazelnut trees and poplar. She also captured the video below of a pail of water drawn from her underground spring. She is in the habit of filling a pail with the frigid water and leaving it outside to warm up before watering her plants with it. Thus, the pail in the video was exposed to the open air on her property from August 7th – the day she left for her sister’s – to the 13th, when the video was taken.

What it shows is a milky film on top of the water:

Just a few days earlier, documentary filmmaker Jeremy Williams recorded an oily film on top of the water flowing down Hazeltine Creek, near the mouth of the breached dam. Williams, who has done lots of documentary work in the region in recent years, headed there with his camera soon after he learned of the disaster.

Besides filming the physical devastation, Williams interviewed a number of locals who described to him experiencing a range of symptoms – from nausea and vomiting to burning eyes and respiratory difficulties – while attending the site in the early hours and days following the dam’s blow-out (watch for video of these interviews in the coming days).

Filmmaker feels the burn

Williams himself experienced short-term health effects during and following the approximate 1 hour he spent on Hazeltine Creek, near the dam, on Friday, August 8.

According to him, “a small amount of water was still cascading from the rupture area, so some of the water was airborne through mist.” In that short time, he developed a headache and his eyes started to burn.

[quote]After leaving the area, I noticed my lungs feeling weak, like I couldn’t catch my breath.[/quote]

It took 2 days for Williams’ breathing to return to normal, while the burning sensation in his eyes lingered for a day and a half.

Facebook posts ignite concern

Meanwhile – as Mike Smyth noted in his province column yesterday, calling for an independent review into Mount Polley – environmental activist David Clow has been stirring up concern on facebook with his widely-read posts on the disaster.

On August 9, he wrote the following:

[quote]Attempting to fall asleep last night, I kept asking why I did this to myself. I have never felt like I did after being exposed like I was last night. I was so ill that I wrote a list of symptoms, not expecting to be able to remember. They included: vomiting, dry heaving, upset stomach, dizziness, motor control delays, continuous blurred vision, throbbing and hot cheeks, heavy eyelids, pain in and around the eyes, lethargic in action and thought, blacking out of vision, tiredness, and headache.[/quote]

Clow would later add, “You don’t need a white lab coat to understand that this is poison. The smell here makes your vision blur and gives you a headache.”

Layer of film on water following Mount Polley tailings dam breach (Facebook / David Clow)
Layer of film on water near dam following Mount Polley tailings spill (Facebook / David Clow)

“They should be testing for airborne contaminants”

Rick Holmes is a Registered Professional Biologist whose company, Cariboo Envirotech, acts as the local Soda Creek First Nation’s Mining and Mineral Exploration Coordinator. Though he wasn’t at the site at the time of the initial incident, he too received numerous reports of a strong smell in the air at the time.

After listening to a number of community members’ concerns, Holmes feels it’s high time for the provincial government to begin studying potential air impacts from the disaster.

He told me that his client, Soda Creek First Nation, sent a letter today to the premier, urging such steps.

[quote]They should be testing for airborne contaminants as soon as possible. [/quote]

Mount Polley-Hazeltine Creek-soft, silty mud
Soft, silty mud left in Hazeltine Creek after tailings dam breach. Consultant Rick Holmes worries that as it dries, the dust will become airborne (Carol Linnitt /

Holmes’ concerns are compounded by the drying out of parts of the flood zone in recent days, which he fears could lead to more airborne contaminants when the debris caked onto trees and the banks of Hazeltine Creek turns to dust.

At 9 pm Wednesday, he emailed Jennifer McGuire, Executive Director, Regional Operations for Environmental Protection at the Ministry of Environment, asking: “Are investigations of the impact of airborn contamination being undertaken?  I noted in my flight of the area 2 days ago that considerable sized areas were drying out and I’m wondering if contaminated dust is being broadcast.”

“Additionally is it safe for cleanup crews to be handling the wood debris without dust masks at the very least? Are gloves sufficient…what about protective clothing…do the contaminants get absorbed by the skin through clothing or by not wearing gloves?” Holmes asked, regarding community members who have been engaged to perform initial cleanup work.

At 8:30 this morning, McGuire wrote back:

[quote]The ministry is aware of the emerging dust issue related to the breach.  Arvind Saraswat – the Ministry Air Quality Section head and former Air Quality meteorologist in Williams Lake – is working on assessing the dust situation and will be providing information/direction to the company regarding suppression and mitigation needed.  Arvind  will be in touch with you.[/quote]

This evening Holmes told me that Saraswat attempted to contact him today, but they were unable to connect as Holmes has been in the field, further investigating the situation on the ground. He hopes to speak with the ministry official tomorrow to see what steps the government is prepared to take.

Chemical contaminants part of equation?

Though he’s not a toxicologist, Holmes acknowledged to me the presence of other potential contaminants besides heavy metal tailings in the mining process which may be of concern. He has worked around mining operations, including Mount Polley – also a client of Cariboo Envirotech.

One such set of contaminants, used in the milling process – after ore has been mined from the ground – is referred to as “chemical reagents”.

According to John Werring, a salmon biologist with the David Suzuki Foundation, the two main chemical reagents being used at Mount Polley – acknowledged by Imperial Metals – are sodium diethyl dithiophosphate and potassium amyl xanathate. “The problem with mining operations in Canada is that, for the most part, the kinds and amounts of chemicals that are used to extract the ore are trade secrets and therefore are not reportable in any kind of a forum or database.” Thus, mines like Mount Polley don’t need to report the concentrations of these chemicals in the materials they discharge into the tailings reservoirs.

Werring’s not jumping to any conclusions about potential health impacts from these chemicals, but he does feel there are many unanswered questions surrounding the issue, given the toxic nature of these substances.

“These two particular chemicals are highly toxic,” Werring warns.

[quote]Sodium diethyl dithiophosphate is a level three poison. It has impacts on human beings and…it’s specifically stated is highly toxic to aquatic life. Potassium amyl xanathate, similarly, is highly toxic to aquatic life. What we don’t know is how much has been discharged in these tailings, we don’t know the fate of these potential chemicals once they get in the tailings pond.[/quote]

An independent 2011 report conducted for two First Nations and Mount Polley Mining Corporation by Brian Olding & Associates found that, “On an annual bases, based on water use and production, Mount Polley produces a value of approximately 7 mg/L [of potassium amyl xanthate]”. According to Werring, these are levels “higher than can support aquatic life”. That said, the report stipulated, “the vast majority of this will actually bind to the concentrate solid and will not be found in the water that is sent to the tailings pond.”

Werring responds: “That’s a wonderful statement to say, but nobody is measuring.” Moreover, “There is absolutely no mention of the kinds and concentrations and the treatment of sodium diethyl dithiophosphate, which is even more toxic.”

Even the heavy metals in Mount Polley’s tailings, which are not ordinarily subject to acid rock drainage,when contained under water, are now exposed to weathering, says Werring. That creates the potential for acid rock draininage, oxidation and other changes that could render them more harmful to the environment than previously thought – especially on a longer-term basis.

Something in the air?

A study by the Centre for Disease Control on Chemical-related injuries and illnesses in U.S. mining lists inhalation as one of three main pathways for mining-related chemicals to enter the body. “Inhaled chemicals can cause acute responses such as nausea, headaches, shortness of breath  and asphyxiation,” the paper states, “or they can have chronic outcomes such as central nervous system disorders and respira­tory illnesses.”

Out of 2,705 cases of workplace injury reported to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s employment and accident, in­jury and illness database – from 1999 through 2006 – roughly a third came from inhalation.

It is impossible to say without proper testing what potentially airborne particulate or chemicals such as reagents could be emanating from sludge and water spilled by the breached containment facility. Or whether these or other contaminants could be impacting the health of people close to the  disaster.

It is also premature to rule out health impacts from chemicals which have been used in Mount Polley’s processing without any information from the company about volumes of chemicals in their effluent. My calls on the subject to Imperial Metals’ communications officer  have gone unanswered yesterday and today. I’m still waiting on a response from the Ministry’s media relations with regards to these questions.

“My home is destroyed”

As for Sylvia Palm, she doesn’t yet feel comfortable returning to her home of 40 years on Quesnel Lake. “My home is destroyed,” she told me by phone yesterday.

She’s taken her concerns to various authorities, with little to show for it. First, the Cariboo Regional District told her the matter was beyond their jurisdiction, referring her to the Ministry of Health. There, Palm was pointed instead to the Ministry of Environment, where she spoke with Cassandra Caunce,  Regional Director for Environmental Protection, Thompson/Cariboo (calls to Ms. Caunce were not returned by the time of this publication).

“From what we’re hearing, everything’s OK,” Palm says Caunce told her, suggesting she try speaking with a medical practitioner. Upon an initial visit to the Williams Lake Hospital earlier this week, a nurse there found elevated blood pressure and prescribed an anti-histamine, guessing from her symptoms that Palm may have experienced an allergic reaction.

Palm has an appointment with a doctor next week, when she plans to ask for a sample of her blood to be taken and tested for contaminants.

Echoing Holmes’ questions to the ministry, Palm says, “One of my biggest concerns is that community members are beginning to clean up the beaches of Quesnel Lake around Likely and to my knowledge they’re not using proper protection.”

[quote]You err on the side of caution when people’s health is at risk.


Meanwhile, Clow continues drawing attention to the fact that part of the government and company’s “cleanup” plan involves pumping contaminated water out of Polley Lake, into Hazeltine Creek, and, ultimately Quesnel Lake, which in turn connects to the Fraser River.

This is what they are currently dumping into Lake Quesnel and into the Fraser River,” Clow wrote on August 11. “Understand that this is on its way as I type this.”

In the coming days, we will continue seeking answers to these vital questions and bringing readers video highlights from Jeremy Williams’ trip to the region – including firsthand accounts of the disaster and health effects experienced by early responders.


Nanotechnology- Panacea or Pandora's box

Nanotechnology: Panacea or Pandora’s box?

Nanotechnology- Panacea or Pandora's box
Matthias Kulka/Corbis

Nanoparticles can be used to deliver vaccines, treat tumours, clean up oil spills, preserve food, protect skin from sun and kill bacteria. They’re so useful for purifying, thickening, colouring and keeping food fresh that they’re added to more products every year, with the nanofoods market projected to reach US$20.4 billion by 2020. Nanoparticles are the new scientific miracle that will make our lives better! Some people say they’ll usher in the next industrial revolution.

Hold on…Haven’t we heard that refrain before?

Nano-ingredients showing up in food…unlabelled

Nanotechnology commonly refers to materials, systems and processes that exist or operate at a scale of 100 nanometres or less, according to U.S.–based Friends of the Earth. A nanometer is a billionth of a metre — about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. An FoE report finds use of unlabelled, unregulated nano-ingredients in food has grown substantially since 2008. Because labelling and disclosure are not required for food and beverage products containing them, it’s difficult to determine how widespread their use is. Nanoparticles are also used in everything from cutting boards to baby bottles and toys to toothpaste.

“Major food companies have rapidly introduced nanomaterials into our food with no labels and scant evidence of their safety, within a regulatory vacuum,” says report author Ian Illuminato, FoE health and environment campaigner.

[quote]Unfortunately, despite a growing body of science calling their safety into question, our government has made little progress in protecting the public, workers and the environment from the big risks posed by these tiny ingredients.[/quote]

Potential health effects worry researchers

Studies show nanoparticles can harm human health and the environment. They can damage lungs and cause symptoms such as rashes and nasal congestion, and we don’t yet know about long-term effects. Their minute size means they’re “more likely than larger particles to enter cells, tissues and organs” and “can be more chemically reactive and more bioactive than larger particles of the same chemicals,” FoE says. A Cornell University study found nanoparticle exposure changed the structure of intestinal-wall lining in chickens.

Like pesticides, they also bioaccumulate. Those that end up in water — from cosmetics, toothpaste, clothing and more — concentrate and become magnified as they move up the food chain. And in one experiment, silver nanoparticles in wastewater runoff killed a third of exposed plants and microbes, according to a CBC online article.

Their use as antibacterial agents also raises concerns about bacterial resistance and the spread of superbugs, which already kill tens of thousands of people every year.

New database aims to inform consumers

The Wilson Center, an independent research institution in Washington, D.C., recently created a database of “manufacturer-identified” nanoparticle-containing consumer products. It lists 1,628, of which 383 use silver particles. The second most common is titanium, found in 179 products. While acknowledging that “nanotechnologies offer tremendous potential benefits” the Center set up its Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies to “ensure that as these technologies are developed, potential human health and environmental risks are anticipated, properly understood, and effectively managed.”

Environmental group calls for moratorium

As is often the case with such discoveries, widespread application could lead to unintended consequences. Scientists argue we should follow the precautionary principle, which states proponents must prove products or materials are safe before they’re put into common use. Before letting loose such technology, we should also ask who benefits, whether it’s necessary and what environmental consequences are possible.

Friends of the Earth has called on the U.S. government to impose a moratorium on “further commercial release of food products, food packaging, food contact materials and agrochemicals that contain manufactured nanomaterials until nanotechnology-specific safety laws are established and the public is involved in decision-making.”

The group says we can protect ourselves by choosing fresh, organic and local foods instead of processed and packaged foods and by holding governments accountable for regulating and labelling products with nanoparticles.

Nanomaterials may well turn out to be a boon to humans, but we don’t know enough about their long-term effects to be adding them so indiscriminately to our food systems and other products. If we’ve learned anything from past experience, it’s that although we can speculate about the benefits of new technologies, reality doesn’t always match speculation, and a lack of knowledge can lead to nasty surprises down the road.

Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with Contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.


First Nation slams coverup of mercury poisoning report

First Nation slams coverup of mercury poisoning report

First Nation slams coverup of mercury poisoning report
Grassy Narrows First Nation member protests suspected mercury poisoning in 2013 (Kevin Konnyu / Flickr)

Updated July 29

By The Canadian Press

TORONTO – For years, the federal and provincial governments have known members of a northern Ontario First Nation suffered from mercury poisoning but failed to provide adequate compensation or health care, band members said Monday.

The Grassy Narrow First Nation said it has obtained an unreleased government report that found there is “no doubt” people in the community of roughly 1,600 near Kenora, Ont., suffered from mercury-related neurological disorders — something the band said officials have never formally acknowledged.

“The government has been sitting on this report since 2009,” Grassy Narrows Chief Roger Fobister Sr. said in a news conference in Toronto.

Meanwhile, the Mercury Disability Board, which includes both levels of government, “continues to overlook the sick people of Grassy Narrows,” Fobister said.

The report was commissioned by the board, which administers compensation for those whose health suffered as a result of mercury poisoning. The board could not immediately be reached for comment.

A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs said members of Grassy Narrows sit on the board and would have reviewed the report when it was presented in 2010. The board also held an open house in the community to discuss the report, Scott Cavan said.

Both provincial and federal governments said they continue to work to address the issue of mercury contamination.

A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said Ottawa has contributed more than $9 million in compensation to Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations for economic and social development initiatives.

Critics nonetheless called for the report to be publicly released.

“A coverup involving the poisoning of an entire community is not something you expect to hear about here in Ontario,” NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic Sarah Campbell said in a statement.

“The government owes it to residents to release any information they have about the issue, and to take concrete steps to address ongoing health, nutrition and environmental issues stemming from the industrial waste.”

Water around Grassy Narrows has been contaminated with mercury since a local paper mill dumped an estimated 10 tonnes of neurotoxins into the system between 1962 and 1970.

Grassy Narrows and the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations negotiated an out-of-court settlement with Ottawa, the province and two paper companies in the 1980s. The board was created as part of the settlement.

The report compared the board’s decisions in several cases with diagnoses made by Japanese experts on Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning, who examined the community between 1975 and 2004.

It found the board recognized only 38 per cent of the cases identified by the experts, noting the discrepancies “are due to different criteria used for evaluations.”

“The approach used by the Mercury Disability Board to assess whether or not an applicant has signs or symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning was designed based on the state of science and knowledge of the impact of mercury on human health in the 1980s,” it reads.

Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows member and activist, said people are being turned away by the board and forced to file appeals, only to remain unsuccessful.

[quote]Everyone should have gotten automatic compensation forever. For us to go and beg for pennies is ridiculous.[/quote]

The band is calling for the government to formally apologize for allowing its people to suffer from mercury poisoning and step up compensation and care.

It also wants the government to clean up the water and block clearcutting projects that could exacerbate the situation.

The province established a mercury working group more than a year ago, but Da Silva, who is part of the group, said progress has stalled without participation from Ottawa.

Cavan said the group, which includes several provincial ministries as well as First Nations members, continues to meet and develop strategies to address mercury-related issues.

“They are researching economic development opportunities for the community, including commercial fishing and guiding with further discussions to take place later this summer,” he said, adding the group is also looking at educational opportunities for youth.



With Duke Point incinerator, property values could go up in smoke


Duke Point incinerator proposal has citizens fuming

The following is a letter from Common Sense Canadian economic columnist and Gabriola Island resident Erik Andersen to Nanaimo city council, which is hearing arguments on a controversial, proposed waste incinerator at Duke Point this evening.

Over the past several decades the City of Nanaimo has single-mindedly pursued a course of beautifying the City by putting behind itself its industrial past of coal mining and logging. Gradually success has and is being achieved.

The prospect of a garbage incinerator at Duke Point, or anywhere else near by, will only undo these decades of progress.

Studies show incinerators seriously affect property values

Numerous reports and studies show that a devaluation of property values occurs with an uglification event and garbage incinerators top the negative event list.

A 1993 study, sponsored by the US EPA, written by Katherine Kiel and Katherine McClain, states that “individuals who live close to an incinerator will experience declines in housing values.”

“Studies in Andover, Massachusetts strongly correlated 10% property devaluations with close incinerator proximity.”

[quote]In 2006, Cleveland State University professor Robert Simons coauthored a paper that looked at 58 peer-reviewed articles dealing with the effects of environment contamination on real estate. In the case of waste incinerators, Simons said that the value of nearby real estate could fall over 10 percent depending on whether the land is downwind of the of the facility and on other factors, such as the amount of truck traffic. However, Simons cautioned that if there are problems at the incinerator site or if it becomes notorious as a result of an accident, property values in the vicinity could drop 10 to 20 percent. He also said that if dioxins are found in nearby soil, that could result in a loss of up to 40 percent in value.[/quote]

Island residents could lose $1.5 Billion

So what would be the financial penalty imposed on the property owners of Nanaimo and vicinity should a garbage incinerator appear at Duke Point? Nanaimo, Gabriola, Lantzville and nearby rural areas, such as Cedar and Yellowpoint are valued at $15.491 billion for assessment year 2014.

Duke Point
Duke Point is the site of a proposed waste incinerator (Photo:

Following just the talk of a garbage incinerator for Duke Point, the process of devaluation of property values has started. With an acceptance of the incineration project there is every indication from the experience of others that collectively we will suffer a roll back in total value of $1.5 billion.

No amount of arguing will influence the process of devaluation as markets are driven only by perception. Nanaimo will be perceived as the host of an ugly process, incineration of an awful lot of the garbage of others.

The $1.5 billion does not include the present value of elevated medical costs created from toxic pollution; nor the present value of losses in regional GDP; nor the present value of property devaluations due to incinerator mismanagement. Add these in and the total social losses/costs would exceed $3 billion.

As for metro Vancouver, their garbage disposal issue is just about NIMBIZIM. Why would Nanaimo volunteer to bail them out?

A petition – “Tell Vancouver that Nanaimo doesn’t want their garbage incinerator” – has already garnered over 4,000 signatures.