Mining worries raised amid celebration of Sacred Headwaters deal

Published in The Tyee | March 7, 2013 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly readers

Annita McPhee, president of the Tahltan Central Council, at her nation's signing of the Save the Fraser declaration on Dec. 13 in Vancouver. Photo by David P. Ball

Annita McPhee, president of the Tahltan Central Council, at her nation’s signing of the Save the Fraser declaration on Dec. 13 in Vancouver. Photo by David P. Ball

While the B.C. government celebrates its win of a national environmental award for a pact that protects the province’s Sacred Headwaters region, the leader of a group that shared the honours criticized ongoing proposals for coal mines in the area.

Last night Tides Canada honoured December’s historic agreement to end coal-bed gas extraction in the Klappan-area wilderness, awarding its “Top 10” prize for “finding unique solutions” jointly to the provincial government, Tahltan nation, Shell Canada, the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition and Forest Ethics.

“Great things can happen when you work together to find solutions that work for everyone,” said Minister of Environment Terry Lake in a statement today. “I’d like to thank Tides Canada for this great honour and acknowledge the collaboration and understanding provided by the Tahltan Central Council and Shell Canada for making this agreement happen.”

The tripartite agreement resolved years of struggle by the 5,000-strong Tahltan, which saw elders arrested by police for blockading, protests, and intense negotiations over lands the nation considers sacred and vital to their way of life. Shell acquired exploration rights in 2004, but ceased work in the area four years later, after coming under protest.

Dubbed the “Sacred Headwaters” by environmentalists and First Nations, the Klappen comprises the Stikine, Skeena River and Nass rivers.

At a Tides Canada award ceremony last night in Toronto, Tahltan leader Annita McPhee celebrated the end of coal-bed exploration in her region, but warned that other resource extraction projects continue to put her territories at risk, particularly gold and copper mines. She said her nation hopes to continue “engaging constructively” with mining companies.

“Shell Oil may be gone from our traditional lands, but new coal mining proposals are a major concern too,” said McPhee, president of Tahltan Central Council. “Our concern is, mining companies are proposing to build right in the headwaters.

“They want to put their tailing ponds right where our people have one of our hunting camps. We are not against economic development. We just believe the benefits should far outweigh the impacts.”

*But according to Fortune Minerals, the firm behind the Arctos Anthracite mine in the Klappan area, the project would not create tailings ponds — and a spokesperson for the company told The Tyee the firm would rehabilitate the affected area in consultation with Aboriginal groups.

Coal mines across the province continue to face controversy, like Vancouver Island’s Raven mine, the Taseko’s New Prosperity mine in the Interior, and the Red Chris Mine in the Stikine region.

The announcement of the tripartite agreement between the BC Liberal government, Tahltan Central Council and Shell was met with rare praise from the NDP.

“It was a long campaign that at times felt like an impossible hurdle,” said Doug Donaldson, New Democrat MLA for Stikine, in a Dec. 18 statement. “I visited the blockade back when I was a councillor with the Village of Hazelton, and I talked to the Tahltan people who were risking everything to stop this project. I am just so pleased that they finally have a decision and a reason to celebrate.

“Part of what makes the northwest unique is the way that people who come from all different walks of life come together to protect the water and the land. We’ve seen it with Enbridge and with the Sacred Headwaters. People in the northwest understand the importance of resource industries, but they also understand that it’s impossible to put a price tag on a clean environment.”

Despite criticism over other mining projects, the government said the end of Shell’s coal-bed activity in Tahltan territory remains a major step forward, and that environmental safeguards and First Nations consultations will ensure other mine projects have a minimum impact and maximum benefit.

“The agreement is a key part of our ongoing relationship with the Tahltan Nation,” said newly appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ida Chong. “It underscores the recent throne speech commitment to reach respectful partnerships, while recognizing and honouring places that are important to First Nations.”

The province’s mining industry has recently seen record-spending on mineral exploration, with $463 million invested in 2011, up from $25 million in 1999, and more than double what it was 25 years ago.

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