Vanderhoof mayor and council are looking for answers from Rio Tinto and the Horgan government after the province asked the company to first stop their summer temperature management program only to reverse it six days later.
The order was originally announced on Aug. 2. The province said it was because fisheries agencies reported that the suspension would assist salmon to migrate past the Big Bar Landslide along the Fraser River.
The slide happened in late June at Big Bar, northwest of Kamlooops, and created a five-metre waterfall that is blocking the majority of hundreds of thousands of chinook salmon from migrating upstream to spawn.
Mayor and council expressed their frustration during a July 12 council meeting for not being involved in an engagement process before this decision was taken by the province.
Councillor Kevin Moutray told the Express that regardless of the fact that it was an emergency situation, local government and First Nations communities should have been given a chance to voice their opinions in regard to the order.
“We have asked multiple times to see what risk benefit analysis was done to show the risk to the resident fish in the Nechako versus any benefit at the Big Bar Slide,” he said. “They have always skirted around that question and nobody has given us any reasoning yet. And that probably makes it quite obvious that there was no risk benefit analysis done in that situation.”
Rio Tinto’s management program helps cool the water in the Nechako River during the summer season to help the swimming salmon. To keep the river below 20 C, water must flow at 170 cubic metres per second to 283 cubic metres per second at the Cheslatta Falls. Typically, the program runs from July 20 until Aug. 20.
But at request of the province, Rio Tinto reduced the water flow to approximately 14.2 cubic metres per second in order to assist in operations at the slide while still meeting temperature requirements in the Nechako.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada stated in an information bulletin that these altered flow releases from the dam have assisted efforts at the Big Bar Landslide by providing stable water flows at the site.
But Moutray disagrees, and argues that six days of average temperatures over 20 C, as a result of temporarily cancelling the management program, is an “awful” situation for salmon to try and survive.
Dawn Makarowski, public affairs officer for B.C.’s forest ministry said the nature of the emergency at Big Bar and the potential threat to migrating salmon was such that immediate action was necessary.
She called the situation “highly dynamic” and said that officials are continually evaluating the impact various water flows have on the salmon at the slide.
It’s about “balancing those impacts on other parts of the Fraser and Nechako systems,” she added.
On being asked whether any risk mitigation was undertaken to understand the effects of the provincial order on the species in the Nechako river, Makarowski said she could not comment further.
The Nechako River is the “lifeblood” of Vanderhoof, Mayor Gerry Thiessen said, and any decision made about Rio Tinto Alcan within the region should be discussed with district council and neighbouring First Nations communities.
He said the risk of this decision was significant.
“We were told by the ministry that they found already tagged salmon up in the Stuart River and up in Prince George,” Thiessen said.
“So its obvious that some fish were getting up there. I have never been told that they found salmon in the Nechako.”
“So my concern is that is anybody going out there and monitoring the Nechako to check to see if there are fish that got up here and died, because of this decision.”
Moutray said he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be involved in the Water Engagement Initiative anymore.
Started by Rio Tinto, the initiative has different stakeholders who get together to discuss their concerns and possible changes they would like to see within the company’s operations.
“I find it very hard to picture myself back on that table where its supposed to be this open process, radical transparency is what they are toting on everything by being this new kinder, gentler big corporation,” Moutray said.
“We are seeing the exact same behavior patterns from them and the senior government is supposed to be keeping them in balance. I just don’t understand. I really think this is taking the process off the tracks and its a real shame,” he said.