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The Sacred Headwaters region of northern B.C., where three important salmon rivers begin.Brian Huntington/The Globe and Mail

A protest by Tahltan elders in the Sacred Headwaters region in northern British Columbia has escalated, with a group shutting down a coal drilling rig operated by Fortune Minerals Ltd.

"Protesters did approach one of the drills and basically because they got too close for safety purposes, the shift ended early," said Troy Nazarewicz, head of investor relations for Fortune Minerals. "We will re-start activities as soon as it's safe to do so."

The protesters, who have been camped in the area for weeks, moved onto the rig on the eve of an announcement by the B.C government concerning talks with the Tahltan Central Council over the future of the area.

The government is expected to announce the formation of a "working group" that would try to come up with a long-term plan for the area.

"I'm glad with the direction the government is taking," said Shannon McPhail of Skeena Watershed, an environmental group that has been campaigning to save the Sacred Headwaters. "I look forward to them giving the Sacred Headwaters the protection it needs."

Mr. Nazarewicz said it has been expected for some time that the B.C. government and the Tahltan Central Council would announce a formal process to discuss the future of the area.

"The Clark government in the election campaign made reference to examining the feasibility of developing a designated protected area," he said. "It's a technical working group between the Tahltan and B.C. government – and the other side of that is the dialogue with industry and that obviously involves ourselves and others that are in the area."

The Sacred Headwaters is located near Mount Klappan, about 600 kilometres north of Terrace. It got its name because three important salmon rivers – the Stikine, Nass and Spatsizi – start there.

Last year Premier Christy Clark announced a deal with Shell Canada that stopped oil and gas drilling in the area, but Fortune and Atrum Coal both have large, active mineral claims in the region that the Tahltan remain concerned about.