Imperial Metals is experiencing troubled times.
After the catastrophic breach of a toxic tailings pond at its Mount Polley mine on August 4th, British Columbians across the province have called into question the safety of the company’s other mega mine projects.
The Red Chris mine, located in B.C.’s northwestern corner is now under intense scrutiny by protestors from the Tahltan Nation who are blocking access to the company’s site, saying they won’t leave until independent reviewers address mine safety concerns.
On August 8th, the Klabona Keepers, headed by a group of mostly women elders, set up two camps, blocking each of the two access roads to the mine. Trucks are parked across the roads and makeshift wooden barricades have been erected to keep company vehicles from entering.
Located on Toddagin Mountain, near the Tahltan village of Iskut, the Red Chris mine is scheduled to begin operations later this year.
Like Mount Polley, Red Chris is an open pit copper and gold mine. And, like Mount Polley, the Red Chris mine is expected to produce millions of tons of toxic tailings over its projected 28-year life span.
The company has set aside a pristine mountain lake called Black Lake as a tailings holding pond. Black Lake is located above lakes and creeks which drain into the salmon bearing Iskut and Stikine Rivers – the lifelines of the Tahltan people.
For the elders, the current blockade is not only a show of solidarity with those affected by the Mount Polley disaster, but an act of self-defense.
One of two roadblocks blocking access to the Red Chris Mine. Photo by Albrecht Berg.
During initial consultations between Imperial Metals and the Tahltan, the company allayed environmental concerns by pointing to their safe track record at Mount Polley. The Red Chris mine would share the same design, the company said.
Now, in the wake of the Mount Polley spill, locals fear the Red Chris mine poses a similar danger to the environment, fish and wildlife.
Following the Mount Polley spill Imperial Metals’ President Brian Kynoch said, “If you asked me two weeks ago if that could happen, I would have said it couldn’t happen.”
During a visit to the Red Chris blockade, one of the elders at the camp, who, like her peers, prefers to be identified simply as Klabona Keeper, told me: “When you live off the land, when the land is your kitchen, the consequences of the kind of thing that happened at Mount Polley, are unimaginable.”
Elders sit around the fire at one of two blockades. Photo by Albrecht Berg.
The main demand of the protestors is a reliable guarantee that the kind of catastrophe seen at Mount Polley will never happen at Red Chris.
“We want an independent review of the tailings pond system by a third party independent of both the government and Imperial Metals,” the elder said.
The current standoff has brought into focus a whole range of issues around the Red Chris project. Mistrust is growing around the promised benefits of the Red Chris project.
Author and anthropologist Wade Davis, who has called the area home for the last 40 years, said the Red Chris project is a massive threat to the local landscape.
Standing in front of his home on the shores of stunning Ealue Lake, which is part of the watershed threatened by the mine, he explained that Todaggin Mountain is home to the world’s largest population of enigmatic stone sheep.
Anthropologist Wade Davis at his home on Ealue Lake. Photo by Albrecht Berg.
“This project, a hundred years hence, will be seen as one of the greatest acts of folly in history of Canadian public policy,” Davis said.
Concerns over the future of the mine have also brought new emphasis to working conditions at the mine which one Tahltan employee described as problematic.
“They can fire us without prior notice, while we have to hand a two-week notice in order to quit,” he said.
Complaints of racism against Tahltan workers have also surfaced. According to Imperial metals, 18 per cent of workers at the site are Tahltan.
“Why not 50 per cent?” one of the elders at the blockade responded when questioned on the issue.
“After all, this is Tahltan country,” she said.
Many of the locals view the Red Chris project as a showcase for how the extractive sector functions in the province.
A Red Chris Mine sign with blockaders in the background. Photo by Albrecht Berg.
B.C. subsidized the construction of a 300 kilometre-long power line to Iskut for the mine, using $750 million taxpayers dollars.
The official rationale for the North West Transmission Line was to break the reliance of 300 Iskut residents on diesel-generated power. Yet critics see the project as nothing more than a gift to Imperial Metals.
Provincial support for the Red Chris project is also seen in a new light, after significant campaign contributions for the B.C. Liberals from Imperial Metals came to light. Murray Edwards, the largest stakeholder of Imperial Metals and Calgary Flames owner, hosted a private fundraising dinner for Christy Clark’s campaign in Calgary ahead of B.C.’s May election.
Since the events at Mount Polley, Imperial Metals and the B.C. government have engaged in significant damage control, with Minister of Mines Bill Bennett likened the spill to an avalanche.
Edwards pledged $100 million to the Mount Polley cleanup to keep a reeling Imperial Metals from going bankrupt.
Company President Brian Kynoch and Minister Bennett paid a joint visit to the Red Chris blockade on Wednesday. Both promised to halt construction until concerns were met.
But so far, the elders remain skeptical. Until they see written commitments to safety standards set by the Tahltan, they are determined to stay.
The mood at the camp is cheerful, yet forceful. Campfire conversation drifts from hunting stories and cookie recipes to political tactic.
One elder joked, “We can always go Mohawk style.” The others chuckled, but agreed they prefer to avoid unnecessary escalation.
The Tahltan have a long history of blockading.
In 2005, during a standoff between Fortune Minerals and Tahltan elders over a proposed open pit coalmine, 15 Klabona Keepers were arrested for defying an injunction to clear the very same access road now blocked by many of the same veteran blockaders.
While the battle over Fortune’s coalmine continues, the Klabona Keepers succeeded in stopping Royal Dutch Shell from going ahead with plans to extract coalbed methane in the same region. Shell withdrew from the region in 2012.
When asked how long they were willing to keep up the current blockade, all the elders answered simply, “For as long as it takes.”