Cree hope toxic Quebec mine site can have a new life

Efforts to clean up one of the worst abandoned mine sites in Quebec are moving forward. Government officials, scientists and representatives from nearby communities recently met to continue work on a rehabilitation plan.

Rehabilitation plan for Mine Principale near Chibougamau more than 8 years in the making

One of the tailing ponds left over from more than 50 years of mining and ore processing at the Mine Principale, near Chibougamau, Que. The site contains 19 metric tonnes of tailings made up of arsenic, copper, nickel and zinc. (Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources/ MERN)

Efforts to clean up one of the worst abandoned mine sites in Quebec are taking shape as government officials, scientists and representatives from nearby communities met this week in Quebec City to continue work on a rehabilitation plan.

The Mine Principale operated for more than 50 years southeast of the community of Chibougamau on Lac aux Dorés and near the Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou. 

These are territories we want to restore so they can be used for cultural activities and hunting.-Curtis Bosum, Oujé-Bougoumou chief

It was a copper mine from 1953 to 1979 and one of the largest gold and copper ore processing sites in the region until 2004. 

When it closed, it left a complicated environmental legacy, including 19 million metric tonnes of tailings that include some arsenic, copper, nickel and zinc. 

Archival photo of Mine Principale near Chibougamau, dated 1959. When the company that owned the facility went bankrupt in 2009, the cleanup fell to the Quebec government. The province identified it as one of 459 old mines that are environmental liabilities. (The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources / MERN)

There is also an open pit, an underground mine, industrial buildings and a huge polishing pond measuring approximately the size of 95 football fields. 

When the company that owned the facility went bankrupt in 2009, responsibility for cleaning it all up fell to the Quebec government. Work on a rehabilitation plan began in 2011. 

"I'm happy that it's moving forward," said Oujé-Bougoumou Chief Curtis Bosum, adding the abandoned mine sits on Oujé traditional traplines O-57 and 0-59. 

Chief Curtis Bosum and other community representatives from Oujé-Bougoumou and Chibougamau have been on the technical committee monitoring the rehabilitation plan. (Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government)

"These are territories we want to restore so they can be used for future practices [like] cultural activities and hunting."

Toxic legacy

The Mine Principale site is one of 459 old mine sites identified in 2017 by the Quebec government as environmental liabilities. 

The provincial Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (MERN) has put aside $1.2 billion to deal with them. 

Bosum and other community representatives from Oujé-Bougoumou and Chibougamau sit on a technical committee, along with representatives from two provincial ministries — Environment and Fight Against Climate Change and Energy and Natural Resources. 

Alain Poirier, the representative on the committee from Chibougamau, says it's important to make the area safer for land users and future generations. The Mine Principale site sits just kilometres from his community. 

"For humans we can put a fence and say don't go here, but animals don't know how to read," said Poirier. "We have to assure that the work we do is done right."

'These are territories we want to restore so they can be used for future practices [like] cultural activities and hunting,' says Oujé Bougoumou Chief Curtis Bosum. (Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources / MERN)

For Bosum, Poirier and Norman Wapachee, the director of Natural Resources for the community of Oujé-Bougoumou, one of the main concerns is over arsenic left over from gold mine tailings processed at the facility. 

"Back [when the mine opened] the regulations were very lenient," said Wapachee, who has been on the committee since 2006 and aware of the file since 2001.  

"There were some higher levels of arsenic in the immediate area. Those are the areas that we are trying to address."

For humans we can put a fence and say don't go here, but animals don't know how to read.-Alain Poirier, Chibougamau

The plan is to cover the tailing site that contains the arsenic with a layer of clean granular fill, although discussions are still happening about how much of a layer is needed. 

"It was said that 50 centimetres would be adequate enough but we are not locked in to that amount," said Wapachee. "It needs to be discussed to accommodate other concerns like blueberries or other wildlife that depend on vegetation." 

'For humans we can put a fence and say don't go here, but animals don't know how to read,' said Alain Poirier, municipal councillor for Chibougamau. (The Quebec Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources / MERN)

'Something positive'

Wapachee and Bosum say this is the first time Cree have been given a seat at the table and consulted on a rehabilitation plan for an old mine site.

"To be able to be actively involved in development of a plan that we see could benefit the Cree and accommodate Cree traditional activities in the future, for us to be involved is something positive," said Wapachee. 

Work has already been done on the site to improve access and secure old mining facilities.

Water testing sensors have also been installed and surface and groundwater samples collected. 

Quebec has also tightened its rules — companies must now submit a clean-up and rehabilitation plan before its project gets the green light and must provide a financial guarantee for 100 per cent of the reclamation costs.