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Michipicoten First Nation considers legal action against Domtar, province

Indigenous community north of Sault Ste. Marie claims Domtar allowing contaminated leachate to spread onto its traditional lands
Domtar Chapleau vegetation
Dead vegetation at the now-defunct Domtar wood waste disposal site near Chapleau, Ont. Michipicoten First Nation says leachate from the contaminated site is spreading outside the provincially-permitted zone and onto its traditional lands. (Photo supplied)

An Indigenous community, north of Sault Ste. Marie, is considering legal action against Domtar and the Ontario government over ongoing contamination that’s in violation of provincial regulations.

Michipicoten First Nation Chief Patricia Tangie said contaminated leachate from Domtar’s wood waste disposal site near Chapleau has been spreading beyond its permitted zone and into the Wawa-area First Nation's traditional lands. The site has been closed since 2006.

The Ontario government gave Domtar a set of terms surrounding the environmental oversight of nine man-made ‘mounds’ or cells - roughly two stories high - that contain contaminants at the shuttered site.

Domtar was directed by the province to use ‘impermeable material’ to cap the mounds in order to prevent toxic metals in the water from leaching out. The cells were also supposed to have vegetation and trees on top of them in order to give them stability and prevent erosion. 

But the First Nation said the cells were never capped properly, causing the contaminated leachate to spread. 

“What we want is for Domtar to fulfill their obligation of ensuring that the pipes are capped properly, because in their permit, the intent was for Domtar to be using clay and cap the pipes properly that come from the wood waste site,” said Tangie.

“But rather than doing that, they put in sand and stones - it was never capped properly, so all this leachate is coming out onto the ground.

“There’s a pond that’s not that far away from that, and that pond actually goes into the Chapleau River. And I think it’s time now that we have both government and resource-based industries be accountable for what they’re doing to our environment.” 

Talks break down between Domtar, First Nation  

Michipicoten claims that Domtar has never seriously consulted with the First Nation, despite intervention from both the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP).

“MNRF and MECP formed an internal government task force to make sure that consultation between Domtar and Michipicoten occurred, and that failed. Domtar does not appear to be as concerned about this whole situation as what we are,” said Tangie.

“And we’re concerned because it’s going into our water, going into the ground, and we have to start looking at the cumulative effects of what we’re doing as a people.”

“It’s not going to be good if we don’t look at how our companies are working, and we need to make them accountable.”

In a statement issued to SooToday, Domtar said it has responsibly managed the wood waste site in compliance with its permit and approval requirements and in consultation with both MECP and MNRF through “ongoing environmental monitoring and reporting for over twenty years.”

“Domtar respects the rights and traditions of First Nation communities and considers environmental stewardship a core value,” read the statement.

“The company regularly consults with communities in proximity to our operations and has made multiple efforts during the consultation process to engage with the Michipicoten First Nation. This includes sharing information, an in-person meeting at the site and repeated attempts to reach Chief Tangie directly."

Solutions proposed by Domtar without data, says First Nation  

John Kim Bell, lead negotiator and business advisor for Michipicoten, told SooToday late last week that instead of capping the contaminated cells properly, Domtar is now looking to extend its ‘contamination attenuation zone’ with a pitch to the province to build a pond - the ask has been upped to two ponds within the past month, Bell said - that would, in theory, contain the contaminants leaching from the cells. 

The First Nation said that it’s been provided very little in the way of data from the pulp and paper producer to back its proposed plan for the site. 

]“First of all we have to understand what the problem is - you’re giving us what the solution is, we don’t know what the problem is,” said Bell. “They did meet with us initially, and of course we said we need the data, we’d like to know the data.”

“They told us there was only one toxic substance that was leaking. We learned there were maybe 10 or 11, but not because they were providing us with the information. It took them 13 months to provide us any data.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks informed SooToday via email there are “comprehensive rules in place to protect the environment, including conditions in landfill site approvals issued under the Environmental Protection Act.”

The email states that the ministry will engage in further discussions with Michipicoten before making a decision. 

“To meet the ministry’s requirements at its former wood waste landfill disposal site near Chapleau, Domtar is re-evaluating their options for leachate management,” read the email. “The ministry will review and consider Domtar’s application once it is submitted.

“The ministry takes its duty to consult with Indigenous peoples seriously and we will have further discussions with Michipicoten First Nation prior to making a decision on the environmental compliance approval application.”

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry declined comment

'It's not only your house, it's your neighbour's house'

Michipicoten First Nation said it's willing to offer Domtar, MECP and MNRF a solution that would serve as an alternative to legal action. 

“They’ve never given anybody data to prove that the ponds will work - but as long as the cells are capped, we’ll compromise and go along with the ponds,” said Bell.

“But what we don’t want is for them to continually ask for more lands to contaminate, because now it’s not only your house, it’s your neighbour’s house.”

Tangie says that government and industry need to start looking at balancing economics and environmental integrity.

“For me, as an Anishinabek woman and as a leader of my community, I have no choice. I have to stand up and make it known when things aren’t being done right, because the next seven generations are counting on it,” she said.

– SooToday