James Bay lithium mine project

Final community consultations in Eastmain, Waskaganish and Waswanipi raised passionate concerns about the potential impacts of the proposed James Bay Lithium Mine, which would be located approximately 130 km east of Eastmain, 10 km north of the km 381 truck stop along the Billy Diamond Highway.

Galaxy Lithium intends to begin operations in 2024 for 18.5 years, extracting about 173 million tonnes of ore through drilling and blasting. Following the public comment period that ended November 11, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC) has been preparing its final report.

“We’ve heard concerns from the communities about water quality, fish habitat, species at risk and the impact of increased road traffic on Billy Diamond Highway,” said the IAAC’s Véronique Lalande. “To create the mines, the proponent will have to create a pit dewatered to extract the ore, which will cause the gradual drying up of Lake Kapisikama as of the fourth year of operation.”

Although the company suggested the lake doesn’t offer optimal conditions for its yellow perch and other fish because the individuals captured were small, it proposed addressing concerns by relocating these fish to a “favourable habitat”. A compensation plan for the loss of water bodies will be developed, with monitoring of groundwater and surface water quality and quantity.

For the project’s infrastructure, including three stockpiles, a concentrator facility and a workers' camp, 304.71 hectares of wetlands would be lost, which is more than the Whabouchi, Rose and Eleonore mines combined. Treated water would be discharged into stream CE2, navigation of stream CE4 would be affected, and dust deposits would impact local air and water quality.

Galaxy Lithium said these effects would be mitigated through water monitoring at the truck stop, regular spraying of the roads and work areas with water and monitoring of animal tissues typically consumed as traditional food. While 12 trucks would transport product to Matagami daily, this number would be reduced to 10 during hunting seasons.

“The major impact for our Waswanipi traplines would be noise and road traffic,” said Waswanipi’s mining coordinator Joshua Blacksmith. “We have land users who live on the land year-round. They are concerned there’s going to be big trucks hauling the ore – the wildlife will move.”

Blacksmith’s department was established six years ago to address the lack of communication between land users and mining exploration companies, which currently only inform the community about early exploration with no consultation whatsoever. While the Paix des Braves specifies site restrictions for forestry, mining companies have been found throughout the territory.

“Work sites are moving north, which causes us to adapt a different hunting style,” Blacksmith told the Nation. “One of the main concerns was our waterways, protecting the traditional water routes that were used by our ancestors. If there’s any sort of spill, we need to have an emergency plan to protect our rivers, streams, lakes and, of course, fish.”

Waswanipi developed a Mineral Exploration Agreement to set guidelines for mining exploration and ensure that companies restore abandoned sites under the supervision of tallymen and land users. Over 100 orphaned sites in its territory still require restoration.

After first being contacted by the company two years ago, Blacksmith has remained in regular contact, most recently following its community consultation November 8. Led by the Joint Assessment Committee, composed of representatives from the IAAC and the Cree Nation Government and co-chaired by John Paul Murdoch, it drew nearly 60 attendees, about double the turnout in Waskaganish a few days earlier.

Councillor Don Saganash asked why the company’s representatives were absent from the presentation, leaving the pressure on local administrators. Tallymen highlighted that river studies are too limited because the waterways are interrelated and suggested that companies visit their traplines to witness these negative impacts.

“There’s a reaction on beaver fur even outside their jurisdiction,” said Freddie Dixon, who works with the local Cree Language Commission. “I went to trap and hunt with Michael Neeposh, who caught that beaver that had a weird taste. Even though the Bachelor mine near Waswanipi closed, we’re still impacted today. How much more do we need to damage?”

Residents remember that Waswanipi River was contaminated by a long-abandoned mine site in Chapais, requiring an extensive cleanup process. Many believe that toxic reservoirs remain from the dozens of mines once active in the Chibougamau area, potentially seeping into the food chain and causing acid rain.

“They’re not thinking about these mines being around forever,” noted tallyman Paul Dixon. “Chibougamau mines are gone, and we’re stuck with the mess. I don’t think the white man understands the impact of development – how can they guarantee our waters won’t be affected?”

Dixon believes these consultations are biased towards unchecked development, leading to further deforestation, noisy roads and wildlife depletion. Others voiced similar concerns at the consultation – Charlie Ottereyes “FM” declared “enough mining – you’re making the Elders tired destroying the land.”

While lithium is essential for the batteries powering electric cars, some experts question how green this energy really is. The Montreal-based water protection organization Eau Secours is concerned that Galaxy Lithium has no identifiable measures to manage arsenic contamination from the uncovered rock, instead assuming the pit will naturally flood following its useful life.

“These levels of arsenic would not only violate federal regulations but also contribute to significant degradation of the surrounding ecosystems for decades, if not centuries,” mining analyst Émile Cloutier-Brassard wrote to the IAAC. “The arsenic-laden water would eventually flow into stream CE3, which flows into Asiyan Akwakwatipusich Lake a few hundred metres downstream.”

Cloutier-Brassard told the Nation the company has still not specifically addressed long-term mitigation measures for contamination or wetland destruction besides vague assurances to propose additional models during the project's first years.

Reading through the “brutally honest” feedback posted at the consultation, it was clear to Freddie Dixon that people want real accountability from companies on their territory, responding to all concerns until gaining the community’s approval. Instead of debating the consequences of mining, he would like to see more focus on healthier initiatives like greenhouses.

“There’s traditional healing medicine in the same black rock under the soil sometimes used in lithium that we should try to preserve,” he said. “The land is our local garden and pharmacy. With the pandemic, cedar tea was the best medicine ever. Is this the way we’re going to treat the medicine we survived from?”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation