The Tseshaht First Nation is calling on the provincial government to conduct more tests in Barkley Sound following the discovery of high levels of arsenic, selenium and cobalt in the waters of Toquart Bay.
The Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) ordered the Toquaht Bay Marina and Campground to close following the findings last week.
Tseshaht Chief Councillor Hugh Braker said the Tseshaht are concerned because they have land holdings near Toquart Bay that may be impacted by the same poisoning.
A VIHA spokesperson said further testing is being undertaken to determine human health impacts and initial remediation requirements. The tests are expected to take eight weeks, and the campground and marina will remain closed for at least that duration.
Health officials are recommending that shellfish from the area be avoided until testing is complete. Officials from the provincial and federal governments are meeting this week to determine the need for additional testing, a spokesperson said.
The land was home to Brynnor Mine, an open pit iron ore mine in the Draw valley near Mt. Redford until the late 1960s then subsequently became Crown land. The area was downloaded to the Toquaht First Nation as part of the Maa-nulth treaty in 2011.
Braker said his band is concerned about shellfish contamination and the economic impact a prolonged closure could mean.
Tseshaht’s Equis Reserve is located south of Mayne Bay, several kilometres southeast of Toquart Bay. The band has a clam operation on the Barkley Sound side of Equis. Their members harvest shellfish from the area, Braker said, and the Tseshaht are negotiating with potential investors about establishing a shellfish development in the same area.
Braker is concerned that pollution from the Toquaht Bay Marina and Campground may have spread elsewhere via tides and currents.
“This has the potential to turn into an environmental nightmare and economic disaster for the Tseshaht,” he said.
The Tseshaht hope any pollution is minimal, but moreover “…we need assurances that the seafood from Barkley Sound is safe for our children to eat,” Braker said.
According to VIHA, arsenic can be poisonous in small doses and fatal if consumed in larger amounts. Contamination can take place by something as simple as a child playing in contaminated soil, VIHA noted.
Braker specifically pointed a finger at the province for allowing the situation to come to this, and called in a letter to Minister of Environment Terry Lake for the government to accept responsibility and conduct further testing.
“The province allowed the mine company to dump the tailings and sand without adequate testing or control,” Braker said.
According to the Ministry of Environment, tailings are fine rock materials in suspension, which are discharged from an ore concentrator or coal preparation plant and stored in another area.
The mine that used to operate in the area ceased operations in the late 1960s, a Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations spokesperson said.
“I don’t have any information about how that was regulated back then,” the spokesperson said.
“But the province is undertaking further testing and will be paying for any necessary remediation of the campground, marina and boat launch area.”