Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut March 03, 2014 - 6:52 am

Health Canada suggests testing of country food near Meadowbank

Potential human exposure to lead a concern

Digging and hauling at Meadowbank open pit gold mining operation near Baker Lake. (PHOTO COURTESY AGNICO-EAGLE)
Digging and hauling at Meadowbank open pit gold mining operation near Baker Lake. (PHOTO COURTESY AGNICO-EAGLE)

Health Canada is suggesting that the Nunavut Impact Review Board get Agnico Eagle to test caribou organ meat and goose meat from animals near the Meadowbank gold mine near Baker Lake, Nunavut because of high readings of lead contained in a human health risk assessment commissioned by the mine owner.

The Jan. 27 letter to the NIRB from Health Canada’s Nicole Côté says levels of other toxins and heavy metals such as arsenic and cadmium were not a concern, but cautioned that Health Canada recommends dietary exposure to lead be “as low as reasonable achievable.”

But if there’s lead in the lichen and sedges around the mine site, it could be eaten by animals and those animals could be eaten by people.

“If the predicted [lead] residue levels and the estimates of exposure to [lead] in the country foods included in the assessment are accurate, some concerns about the consumption of country foods obtained from the project site (and the external reference site) exist,” the letter says.

However, Health Canada said there are some uncertainties surrounding the validity of the samples, and the assessment of those samples, so it has suggested that a new round of samples be tested.

“This would also serve as a benchmark for future assessments of lead in country foods from this site,” the Health Canada letter says. “If the background levels of lead in these country foods are determined to be high in the region, then it may be appropriate to consider risk management options.”

Ryan Barry, the NIRB’s executive director, said in an email to Nunatsiaq News Feb. 28 that the NIRB’s monitoring officer was set to discuss this and other items during a recent site visit, but that visit was cancelled due to poor weather.

“Next steps for the NIRB on this would be to have AEM [Agnico Eagle] review the Health Canada letter and provide a formal response to Health Canada’s recommendation including details regarding how AEM intends to address the high levels of lead recorded to date and the next steps if the results were correct,” Barry wrote.

The Health Canada letter contained an appendix comparing lead consumption levels in the samples to the median level of lead exposure of all Canadians in their entire diet.

The predicted lead exposure people would get from eating these caribou organs and goose meat alone were consistently higher than what Canadians are generally exposed to from all the foods they eat.

But in a sense, these are not “actual” values: these are predictions based on the plant, water and soil samples collected in and around the Meadowbank mine site and what would happen if animals consumed them.

From time to time, the Government of Nunavut issues public health advisories warning people, especially children and pregnant women to limit consumption of certain country foods, often organ meat such as liver and kidneys where toxins and heavy metals can accumulate.

Under Agnico Eagle’s Project Certificate, the company is required to monitor the impact of its open pit gold mining operation on environmental health, including the health of the animals who graze near the site, roughly 70 kilometres north of Baker Lake.

Baxter Consulting conducted the human health risk assessment report for Agnico Eagle, submitted it to the company in June 2012, and it was then forwarded to the NIRB.

The NIRB sent the report, and extra information it had requested, to Health Canada to see if there were any concerns based on Health Canada guidelines.

That report says consumption of caribou kidney and liver “may potentially result in unacceptable risk,” mostly due to sample concentrations of cadmium, the chemical element often found in batteries, and lead, from one onsite sedge sample that was unusually high.

“This [lead] concentration is 10x higher than the next highest concentration found in sedge anywhere and may be a reporting error,” the report says.

The NIRB often partners with federal agencies in its work monitoring resource activities in the territory.

Regarding Meadowbank, Nunavut’s only operating mine, the NIRB has also asked Transport Canada to investigate a spill of roughly 200 litres of diesel fuel at the company’s marshalling facility in Baker Lake Aug. 9, 2012.

“The fuel spill occurred during discharge operations by the barge vessel at the Baker Lake mine site marine manifold,” says a 2012-2013 NIRB monitoring report.

The shipper, Woodward, did not have sufficient spill equipment on board at the time, the report says, so Agnico Eagle staff used additional materials from the Canadian Coast Guard sea-can in Baker Lake.

Agnico Eagle has since set up two environmental emergency sea-cans at the Baker Lake laydown facility containing, among other things, booms and absorbent pads.

The NIRB is still waiting for Transport Canada to finish investigating the incident. Officials with the NIRB have sent numerous letters to the federal department, the latest in November 2013, asking for results.

Transport Canada replied in a January 2014 email, 18 months after the incident, saying the investigation is still continuing.

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