VANCOUVER - Dozens of First Nations protesters are blockading a proposed open-pit coal mine in a remote area of northwest B.C.
The Tahltan Central Council said approximately 30 band members are demonstrating at the campsite of Fortune Minerals' Arctos Anthracite Project, located 330 kilometres northeast Prince Rupert.
The council said members are concerned the mine will impact more than 4,000 hectares of pristine wilderness.
"It's in the Sacred Headwaters, (which) is a place of cultural significance to us," said council president Annita McPhee. "It's a place that has a lot of archaeological finds of our people, and our people utilize that place right to this day."
The area, McPhee added, supports three major salmon-bearing rivers — the Skeena, Nass and Stikine.
"The central council is not involved in organizing the protest, but we can recognize how deeply frustrated our people are because they see this company pushing ahead with plans to desecrate a sacred area in our territory," she said, adding she will be travelling to the area and meeting with Fortune representatives.
"I'm there to look for solutions, but our members are pretty clear they don't want to see this place developed," she said.
The protest started after Tahltan Elders and community members served a “24-hour eviction notice” to Fortune on Wednesday night. The notice expired at 8 p.m., after which protesters — who are calling themselves the "Klabona Keepers" — began the blockade in an effort to "frustrate the company’s operations."
Klabona is the Tahltan name for the headwaters of four salmon bearing river systems, and is located in the Klappan highlands, a traditional Tahltan hunting ground.
A spokesman for Fortune said representatives are currently at the Arctos campsite to speak with protesters, but the company's Number One priority is safety.
"We haven't sent any workers out into the field," said Troy Nazarewicz. "Until its safe to do so, no one will be working."
"Effectively, we have the necessary permits and approvals in place right now and intend to resume activities as soon as it's (possible)," he said.
Nazarewicz said the company has not yet decided whether they will pursue legal action if the blockade continues.
In 2005, about 15 people were arrested when the Tahltan blockaded Fortune from entering the area.
"This is the same company who had (protesters) arrested back in 2005, and some of the same people are there," said McPhee.
"We have been fighting this development for so long."
The camp site for the Arctos Project was set up in early July to collect baseline and scientific data for the B.C. Environmental Assessment Process, said Nazarewicz
"The environmental process in place basically sets out the merits and impacts of the project from a balance perspective, and addresses any environmental, social and economic considerations," he said. "Ultimately we'd like to complete this camp this year, as soon as it's safe to do so, to support that EA process. And in the end the government of British Columbia will come out with their recommendation."
The Arctos project consists of 16,411 hectares of coal exploration licenses in northwest British Columbia, according to Fortune's website. The joint venture between Fortune and Posco Canada Ltd. — a subsidiary of a Korean company — intends to export coal from Prince Rupert to the overseas steel industry.
Last December, the remote region was saved from oil-and-gas development when Shell Canada Ltd. withdrew plans to drill and explore for coalbed methane.
Shell left the area as part of an agreement it reached with the B.C. government and the Tahltan.