The Halalt First Nation has filed civil claims with the Supreme Court of British Columbia against the provincial and federal governments, demanding that both governments protect their ancestral lands from the dioxin pollution emitted by the paper mill in Crofton.
Last month, Halalt filed a separate $2 billion lawsuit against Catalyst Paper Corporation, the mill’s operators, claiming that the company has refused to adopt technology that would reduce air and water pollution generated by the Crofton mill.
Jeffrey Rath, legal counsel to Halalt First Nation, said the mill’s burning of hog fuel — unrefined wood byproduct or waste such as bark chips and wood fibre — hasn’t changed since it began operations in 1957.
“They [Halalt] want Canada and British Columbia to look at all the permits that have been issued to Catalyst Paper Corporation with regards to water releases and air emissions and suspend operation of those permits in the event that Catalyst does not agree to change its method of operation, to completely cease the burning of hog fuel and convert its burners at the plant 100 per cent to natural gas,” he said.
Rath emphasized there are alternatives to Catalyst’s current practices.
“They may cost somewhat more, but obviously one of the reasons Halalt is engaged with the government in challenging the Catalyst permit is that the economics of the plant could obviously be greatly changed were the governments to provide Catalyst with tax credits or subsidies,” Rath said. “That would allow the conversion to natural gas from hog fuel burning to take place in a manner that wouldn’t affect Catalyst’s return on investment or bottom line.”
Halalt is currently seeking unspecified damages from the provincial and federal governments, monetary amounts to be proven at trial.
Chief James Thomas of the Halalt First Nation said the mill’s operations have caused a decline in the area’s fish population, which he attributed to large volumes of hot water being released from the mill into the ocean on a daily basis. He said the fish have not returned to the Chemainus River or Bonsall Creek for the past three years and this has had a “huge impact” on the community.
“For our nation I think it’s time for the feds and province to be accountable for the last 60 years of degradation to our [territory] and our loss of our salmon stocks over the last 20, 30 years,” said Thomas.
The federal and provincial governments have yet to release a public statement in response to the First Nation’s legal action.
Band member Herman Thomas shared some of his memories of how the land in the area was used in his youth and the ways in which it has changed since then.
“In our youth, the mountains and rivers and oceans were our playgrounds,” he said. “So we got to know our island and Willy’s Island and walking out there.”
According to Herman, over the years “sludge” from the mill has built up between the mainland and Willy’s Island, preventing foot access to band members.
“It was a place that we all went, probably all members, we went out there to hunt deer…and sleep overnight at Willy’s Island and just take a pot, some matches and would cook the seafood that’s out there,” he said. “The estuary was rich…The estuary now is dead. I believe that the pulp was the cause of that because of the sludge.”
When Halalt filed legal action against Catalyst on Jan. 22, the paper company said it will “vigorously defend itself” against the civil claims.