The Town of Watson Lake and the Liard First Nation have filed a lawsuit against the Yukon government for environmental abuses.
It’s the first time that a First Nation and a local government have joined forces as co-plaintiffs in an action against the territorial government, according to a news release issued by the plaintiffs. It’s also the first time that the Environment Act has been used against the government that introduced it.
Watson Lake Mayor Richard Durocher said the town and Liard First Nation have been working together for the better part of a year, since concerns were initially raised about hydrocarbons leaking into the fish-bearing waters of Wye Lake, which eventually flows into the Liard River.
Those hydrocarbons appear to be emanating from the Alaska Highway, but Durocher said they haven’t been able to locate the direct source.
“We want the Yukon government to do a Level II environmental review of where these hydrocarbons are coming from,” he said. “We’re adamant now we’ll stick with a court-ordered Level II review and from there start the investigation to find the source of these gas and diesel emissions.”
Durocher said the town has conducted extensive testing on the water and found that contaminants from gas and diesel have been observed at levels up to 7,450 micrograms per litre. The Yukon defines contamination at 5,000 ug/L.
The town has also found hydrocarbons in the lagoon system.
Town officials tested Yukon’s sewer lines, which showed levels up to 37,700 ug/L, more than seven times the level of contamination.
The hydrocarbons were destroying the town’s microbes and preventing waste from breaking down.
The source of the hydrocarbons was linked back to drainage from the Department of Highway and Public Works. “We isolated it to that one drainage line,” said Durocher.
He said the town alerted the Yukon government of the problem but that they weren’t taken seriously.
Watson Lake responded by plugging the Department of Highway and Public works drains, in an attempt to prevent more hydrocarbons from being released.
The Yukon government challenged the town’s authority and instructed them to re-open the lines, and threatened the town for all costs due to disruption of the service, according to the news release.
“Yukon minimized the volume of the discharge and the premier has defined the contamination as ‘alleged’ despite laboratory data, disclosed to the Yukon, that clearly indicated otherwise,” it states.
The drainage lines remain plugged and have been for six months, said Durocher.
“The irony is that Yukon, through the Yukon Water Board, is demanding a remediation plan for our sewage lagoon and it has placed demands that we spend $100,000 on hydro-geological wells to ensure no leakage occurs into the Liard River,” he said.
“In light of our discovery, the demands are absurd. Our community will not spend one cent on a problem created by the very government that has ordered we clean it up.
“In my view, that’s a little hypocritical. It’s fully their responsibility.”
According to the release, the statement of claim asks the court to impose a multitude of remedies, all of which involve the cleanup of the sewage lagoon and the Alaska Highway right of way. Precise figures for the cleanup will not be known unless a Level II environmental review is ordered by the court, but early figures indicate remediation in excess of $20 million, according to the release.
“The Yukon government wants us to believe they can properly monitor and enforce environmental standards in the Peel watershed and on lands where fracking is to occur, but they can’t even clean up their own backyard. Their conduct is hypocritical. Their behaviour demonstrates why so many Yukoners are concerned with the environmental and First Nations attitudes of this government,” said Cindy Porter, deputy chief of the Liard First Nation, in the release.
“It’s tragic we had to go to this step to force the Yukon government to take action on this file,” said Durocher.
“It’s nice to see the First Nation here coming on board as a co-plaintiff on this. They realize the importance of doing this and agreed right away to get on board.”
Neither plaintiff is seeking any direct monetary compensation. They are represented by Geoff Plant, a former attorney general of British Columbia.
“It’s up to the Yukon government where they want to go from here,” said Durocher.
“We’re ready and willing to talk but they need to be willing to come to the table as well.” The Yukon government did not respond for comment by press time.
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