Thunder Bay

Eabametoong Chief concerned about hydrocarbon spill after vehicle capsizes in lake near the First Nation

After an amphibious vehicle capsized on a lake just upstream from Eabametoong First Nation last week, the community's chief is raising alarm about the possibility of a hydrocarbon spill and about the way the incident is being handled.

Rohl Enterprise's amphibious vehicle capsized in a lake just northwest of Eabametoong First Nation on Thursday

An amphibious vehicle working to install a fibre optic cable network to connect five Matawa First Nations to high speed internet capsized on Thursday, causing concern about a possible hydrocarbon spill. (Provided by Harvey Yesno)

After an amphibious vehicle capsized on a lake just upstream from Eabametoong First Nation last week, the community's chief is raising alarm about the possibility of a hydrocarbon spill and about the way the incident is being handled.

Eabametoong Chief Harvey Yesno called the response to the incident "gross negligence" and "environmental racism on First Nation lands."

"I think the governments in Manitoba, and Ontario have demonstrated they are in favour of accelerating resource development in favour of the business, so they've crafted loose regulations and the laws in such a way as to accelerate and bypass any regulatory measures," Yesno said.

"That's what I call environmental racism. You know, it's on our lands. This land is Treaty 9 land. It's our territory. And yet the government has passed these laws that allow these companies to do whatever with no slap on the wrist at all."

The amphibious vehicle — operated by telecommunications company Rohl Enterprises — was working to install a fibre-optic cable network on Nov. 5 when it flipped in Opikeigen Lake. The lake is about 25 kilometres northwest of Eabametoong, and flows into Eabamet Lake, on which the First Nation is located.

All three crew members working in the vehicle were quickly rescued by a helicopter, and the floating equipment like "barrels and coolers" were removed from the water "as quickly as possible," according to Yesno. The amphibious vehicle itself was not removed from the water until Sunday, three full days after the capsizing took place.

Chief Yesno said in addition to the worry about a possible hydrocarbon spill in the water system around the First Nation, he's concerned with how the incident was handled.

The Ontario government's pollution and spills web page says "under provincial regulations, you must immediately report spills of pollutants that you control to Ontario's Spills Action Centre."

Section 92 of the Ontario Environmental Protection Act also states that "every person having control of a pollutant that is spilled and every person who spills or causes or permits a spill of a pollutant shall…notify…of the spill, of the circumstances thereof, and of the action that the person has taken or intends to take."

Rohl Enterprises confirmed in an emailed statement they did not report the incident to the Spills Action Centre until Saturday.

Chief Yesno said he actually reported the spill to the public pollution hotline before Rohl.

Harvey Yesno is chief of Eabametoong First Nation in Ontario. (Dave McSporran/Bottled Media)

Company spokesperson Megan Gillam added in the statement that two third-party environmental management firms were sent to the site on the Saturday, and upon initial investigations, it did not appear that any hydrocarbon spills were present, but they could not be certain until results come back from the water samples.

Yesno responded, "this is going to be just a paperwork exercise. And whether one litre of hydrocarbon was spilled or 10,000 litres, it's not going to matter … they're going to go through the procedures, have the appearance that something is being done. I guess the most disappointing thing, you know, what's the point of having the Environmental [Protections] Act? You don't even follow the procedure. There's no alarm."

The Chief of Eabametoong added he wanted to see provincial or federal regulators on the scene to monitor the response, but he said, " here again, the Ministry [of Environment, Conservation and Parks] is sitting on their hands in some office somewhere. There's nobody representing the provincial ministry here, so nobody's paying attention … and I don't expect any action at all."

An emailed statement from the provincial environment ministry confirmed "there are no plans for a ministry site visit" because "there are no signs of a spill" and "the ministry is satisfied with the efforts taken to address the situation."

Concerns about whether workers are following COVID-19 guidelines

But the hydrocarbon spill isn't Chief Yesno's only concern about the work Rohl Enterprises is doing near the community.

He said when he returned recently to the First Nation, "the first thing I noticed, you know, there was no one wearing masks at all." 

Yesno said with more contractors and workers flying into the community for work or environmental monitoring as a result of the incident, he's worried about a heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Eabametoong community members "work with these guys all day, but they go back into the community. And then we have the people that are helping out with cooking and cleaning. I know one person who has quit working because of that potential exposure," he added.

Rohl Enterprises responded in a written statement, "all ROHL personnel have maintained mitigation measures relating to COVID 19 throughout the project operations and our emergency response."