Members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation are speaking out about Chieftain Metals Inc.‘s plans to develop the Tulsequah Chief mine site near Atlin, B.C.
They say the project threatens their traditional way of life and limits future opportunities for their children.
The Tlingit have long depended on the Taku River’s coho salmon for food and employment. It’s feared that these fish will be harmed by the reactivation of a historic mine in the area, once used to extract zinc, copper, lead and silver.
The project has faced several delays, partly because there is no access road to the site. Chieftain Metals inherited approval to build an access road from Redfern Ventures, the previous owner of the site, which went bankrupt. Earlier in the year, it applied to change the road’s route. Last week, the B.C. government approved the changes.
“It’s going to disrupt our culture and our traditional way of life,” said Andrew Williams, one of the First Nation’s elders.
The new route is 35 kilometres shorter than the previous road. It will run from the site to the Nakonake River and then branch off to connect with Warm Bay Road.
This new route crosses fewer streams and avoids direct contact with the Nakina Trail, a place of cultural significance for the First Nation. The province’s environmental assessment board determined these changes would not cause significant harmful effects, Stuart Bertrand, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment said in an email.
The road cannot be built until the province approves a special use permit for it. That permit is expected “very soon,” Brennan Clarke, a spokesman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said in an email.
Chieftain has maintained an open dialogue with the First Nation throughout this process, it said in a press release. But last month, the First Nation announced it would be pulling its technical teams from the provincial review processes.
The First Nation is concerned that Chieftain does not have the money to run the project, and cannot say when it will restart its water treatment plant. In July, spokesperson John Ward wrote the B.C. government to express the First Nation’s concerns with the project and to say it would no longer be participating in the approval processes.
The government responded by saying it recognized the First Nation’s concerns, but would still continue with the review process.
The First Nation is not releasing a formal statement on the approval to the road amendment at this time, Ward told the News this week. But some members are speaking out.
Some have recently formed Children of the Taku, a not-for-profit society dedicated to maintaining Tlingit heritage, culture and traditions developed through the Taku watershed.
“I don’t have children yet,” said Chantelle Hart, a Tlingit member and Whitehorse resident. “But everything I’m doing is for them.” Anyone interested in preserving the area can join the society, which is registered in the Yukon.
The salmon in the river may be in danger, members worry. In June, Chieftain shut down its interim water treatment plant because it didn’t have enough money to operate the site. Acid from the mine is leaking into the river. While there have been no reports of people becoming sick, the leakage is noticeable. Rocks in the area are bright red, said Williams.
“They did not honour their commitment to restore the water to its original form. The acid leeching is still happening, as we speak,” he said.
The company has not said when it will restart the plant. Since the plant closed, the company has been in non-compliance with the B.C. Ministry of the Environment.
The ministry has ordered Chieftain to provide regular reports about water pollution and submit a revised plan for when the plant will open again. The plan is currently being reviewed, but the ministry is committed to ensuring Chieftain meets its responsibilities “regardless of whether new mining operations begin at the site,” said Bertrand.
Members worry the proposed road will open up the area to developments by other companies.
“Once a road’s been taken in, it can’t be taken back out,” said Hart.
“Let’s face reality,” said Williams. He used to work in road construction, and is not aware of any road in B.C. that has been fully decommissioned, he said.
And the impact of the mine will last much longer than its life expectancy, which is less than 15 years, said Hart.
“What if the company goes bankrupt and leaves a huge mess like Redfern did? There’s no way to prevent that. Mining companies are boom or bust,” she said.
“Our worry is that if all these people from all over the world want to come to this little parcel of land here, they’re never going to stop. Even if Chieftain’s out of the picture, there’s going to be more and more people who want access to the resources and the land and we’re always going to be trying to protect it,” said Hart.
Chieftain has had many financial problems. It recently secured funding from Procon Holdings in Alberta, a majority-owned subsidiary of China CAMC Engineering Co. Ltd.
“And after they go boom and bust, we’re going to be left to pick up the pieces. And we don’t know what pieces are going to be left,” said Hart.
Company officials were travelling this week and unable to comment before press time.
Besides the special use permit for the road, Chieftain needs further permits from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations and approval from Transport Canada. The company has indicated it wants to begin building the road early next year.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at