Written by Christie Kates, CNN
Mounties raided a small community’s underground mine to solve one of the healthiest, safest and cheapest threats to an aging group of monarch butterflies.
On April 18, a 200-pound backpack of copper and gold ore, and nearly all of the mine’s bodies of water, were confiscated, sparking criticism from indigenous groups.
“If the federal government continues on this path, that will result in a loss of jobs and a loss of democracy,” says Brenda Campbell, a Grassy Narrows First Nation (FN) councillor. “This is the only source of water for our community, and it’s safe for people to use.”
That day, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — the federal police force — confiscated a stockpile of explosives, 28,000 pounds of ore, and contaminants like slurry and wastewater. But they also found: “personal care items like spatulas, straws, dishes, and a baby bottle.”
Seven initial contaminants were confirmed, according to Rachel Price, NRM Interim Manager at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and that number is growing.
In this area of Ontario, the monarch butterfly population has been steadily dwindling for years. The butterflies are most threatened in the Grassy Narrows First Nation (FN) and Fallowfield Cree Nation (FCN), a group of about 9,000 people just north of Grassy Narrows.
Grassy Narrows sits right at the intersection of two watersheds: Grassy Narrows River and Fallowfield River. This means that Fallowfield River is fed from the mine and enters the Grassy Narrows River, which then enters Lake Ontario.
“As long as the mine doesn’t stop operating the system is stable,” says Price.
The mine provides jobs for the FN, including two logging jobs that pay $24 an hour, and small mining jobs at a small processor. Both depend on an underground section that’s largely free of environmental contaminants.
“The Grassy Narrows mine contains very little water contamination, but the volume of waste that is stored on site is greatly impacting the use of the Fallowfield River,” Price says. “The Fallowfield River also supplies drinking water to the community.”
The gold and copper mine’s owner, SouthGobi Resources , acknowledges that this violates an agreement with the province.
“It would take over a decade to open a much larger source of water,” Jim Selig, vice president of SouthGobi Resources, told Quartz.
“It’s far too hazardous a move for the Canadian government to be making here.”
The 100-year-old Grassy Narrows gold and copper mine is one of the last. And even if it’s closed for good, future attempts to mine at the site could still damage the watershed. To make matters worse, nearby streams become navigable again when rain falls. If a mining landslide were to happen, like what happened in West Virginia in January 2015, or in British Columbia’s Spruce Woods in 1995, their toxic waste would eventually flow into Lake Ontario.
For the next few weeks, Grassy Narrows will wait for the federal government to decide whether to appeal the seizures. If the government decides to send in the cleanup team, Campbell and the FN are asking the government to assess and keep a good inventory of the mines so that dangerous contaminants aren’t allowed to contaminate people’s drinking water.
This issue has now gone from bad to worse. The FN says that the Ontario government recently spent $10 million on removal of a shallow spill from the site, and is refusing to discuss whether or not the process will finish or will interfere with the uranium from the gold mine.
Instead, Selig says, “in the short term, there will be no short-term change.”
This is definitely the definition of “short term” … for the people of Grassy Narrows, not to mention for their national champion monarch butterfly.