West Moberly First Nations concerned about mercury contamination in fish

Members of the West Moberly First Nations say a hydroelectric dam in northeastern B.C. has left fish in the region too contaminated with mercury to eat.

Study by the band concludes 98% of fish have mercury levels above provincial guidelines

West Moberly First Nation Chief Roland Willson holds a frozen bull trout that he says is contaminated with mercury, in front of the Legislature in Victoria on Monday. (Dirk Meissner/The Canadian Press)

Members of the West Moberly First Nations say a hydroelectric dam in northeastern B.C. has left fish in the region too contaminated with mercury to eat.

Chief Roland Willson and members of the McLeod Lake Indian Band, located in northeastern British Columbia, arrived at the legislature in Victoria with more than 90 kilograms of bull trout packed in two coolers.

"Typically, you'd be proud of this fish," he said. "But we can't eat this."

The fish were there to illustrate a recent study by the band that concluded 98 per cent of their fish samples contain mercury levels above provincial guidelines.

The study examined 57 fish taken from the Crooked River, where fish migrate from the Williston Lake reservoir.

Willson said the contaminated bull trout are connected to that reservoir, which was created as part of the 1960s-era W.A.C. Bennett Dam.

He warned similar contamination could result from the proposed $9-billion Site C hydroelectric dam and 83-kilometre-long reservoir in the Peace River Valley near Fort St. John.

"Everybody's shocked," said Willson. "It shouldn't just be the First Nations who are shocked.

"This is an issue for everybody. The general public. Anybody who's eaten fish up there or out of that system, they need to be worried about what they are doing."

Province unaware of contamination

The province's ministers of environment and energy and mines said they were not aware of mercury tests or studies associated with the W.A.C. Bennett Dam or the Williston reservoir, but fish and water from the Site C reservoir will undergo rigorous and regular testing.

Environment Minister Mary Polak says the province will run its own tests. (CBC)

"It's important to note that this is a very different situation than what we find with Site C," said Environment Minister Mary Polak.

Willson was blunt about his opposition to Site C, which the government approved last year.

"It's a mistake. It's a stupid idea," he said.

Willson said the West Moberly support other methods of generating electricity in the northeast, including geothermal power and natural gas-powered energy.

The Site C dam, which through its reservoir would flood agricultural land, would annually produce 1,100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 450,000 homes.

Willson said the Williston Lake reservoir created the mercury pollution with the release of toxins from decaying trees and other materials in the flooded lands.

He said area First Nations are preparing to embark on a human study to determine if people have high levels of mercury.

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