08/15/2014 02:58 EDT | Updated 10/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Mount Polley Tailings Pond Spill Could Affect Fish: First Nations

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - For the first time in eight years, British Columbia's Quesnel River salmon stocks are expected to return in large enough numbers that First Nations in the area will be able to fill their food-fish quotas.

But the First Nations Fisheries Council of B.C. has expressed deep concern for the health of the people gathering those fish after a massive tailings pond spill gushed contaminated water and silt into "pristine salmon habitat."

Council delegate Thomas Alexis said in an interview Friday the projected large sockeye return up the Fraser River gave many in the area hope they would have a productive fishing year.

"It would make a big difference because a lot of years in the past before this run we weren't able to meet our food fish needs," said Alexis "We were fishing way below our targeted needs and it's been like that for a long time now."

First Nations communities are concerned about the short and long-term impact the tailings spill will have on the fish, he said.

"There may be some heavy metal that would embed itself in the substrait where the salmon spawns and that might impact the health of the fish in the future."

Provincial government tests on water and trout in the area waterways around the tailings pond breach in B.C.'s Cariboo region remain within guidelines, but local First Nations aren't convinced the disaster won't have lasting repercussions, he said.

The latest government tests from Quesnel Lake show the water meets drinking-water guidelines and tests on rainbow trout show the water was not toxic to the fish.

But Dr. Trevor Corneil of Interior Health has said the assessment does not apply to fish located within the immediate area of the breach, which is still under a water-use ban.

For the first time tests are expected this weekend on sediment collected from the breach and from water in Polley Lake, the closest lake to the tailings spill.

The Tsilhqot'in National Government said it also has concerns the breach at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine will have long-term impacts on ceremonial and food fish.

Chief Joe Alphonse said that his government isn't satisfied with the Ministry of Environment's initial findings.

"Our people are finding dead salmon along the river shores unlike they have ever seen in their lifetime," he said in a news release.

Alphonse said they'll do what is necessary to ensure the mine's owner, Imperial Metals Corp., is held accountable to any damage done to salmon and waterways.

His band also support a call from other First Nations for an independent, public inquiry into the mine disaster.

"Let this be an example to all mining projects in Canada. Without an environmentally sound project, there will be no economic certainty."

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