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First Nations protesters shut down northern B.C. drilling site

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After a summer of protests aimed at mining companies, members of the Tahltan Nation in northern B.C. say they have shut down an exploratory drilling operation by taking over the site.

"HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!!!!" states a Monday night posting on the Facebook page for Tahltan elders. "The Klabona Keeper members are occupying a black hawk drill pad above Ealue Lake!!!"

The elders' group, which is based in Iskut just south of Dease Lake, has staged several protests in the area in recent years blocking resource companies from working in a place known as the Sacred Headwaters. The region is highly valued by the Tahltan because it holds the headwaters of three important salmon rivers – the Stikine, Skeena and Nass.

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Rhoda Quock, a spokeswoman for the Klabono Keepers, said Tuesday a group of protesters hiked to the remote drill site and took it over.

She said Black Hawk Drilling Ltd., a Smithers, B.C., company that works for Firesteel Resources Inc. of Vancouver and OZ Minerals of Australia, flew its drilling crew out after the occupation began.

Protests against the mine exploration work began in 2006-07, said Ms. Quock, when Firesteel Resources began examining a copper-gold deposit in the Sacred Headwaters region.

The Klabona Keepers set up roadblocks at that time and the company withdrew, before returning earlier this summer, she said.

"In July … we saw drilling equipment near the road," she said. "We told them they had until noon to remove the drill or we'd take it over. And they did [remove the equipment]."

But Ms. Quock said helicopters were later seen flying overhead.

Company officials could not be reached for an interview, but on its website, Firesteel Resources states that in July it began working with OZ Minerals on a drilling program in the area.

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In a brief e-mail, Michael Hepworth, President and chief executive officer of Firesteel Resources, said the drilling crew has approval to do exploratory drilling.

"We are working in the area under [Tahltan Central Council] approval and are fully permitted by the B.C. government to work in the area," said Mr. Hepworth, who is travelling outside Canada.

Although the Tahltan Central Council is the main governing body of the Tahltan Nation, the Klabona Keepers operate independently. The two groups are sometimes at odds, but generally support one another.

Chad Day, recently elected President of the Tahltan Central Council, could not be reached for comment.

David Haslam, a spokesman for the Ministry of Mines, said in an e-mail that Firesteel Resources "has all the necessary tenures and permits" it needs and the government is working with the Tahltan Central Council "to develop a shared vision for land and resource use."

Mr. Haslam urged "everyone to remain respectful of one another on the ground while we seek a resolution to the situation with the Klabona Keepers."

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Ms. Quock said members of the Klabona Keepers hiked through the mountains on the weekend looking for remote drill sites.

"They found the drill, the spill tray on it was overflowing with oil and water," she said. "We shut the drill down. They are staying there and they are not allowing the drill to leave."

Asked what message she wanted to deliver, she said: "We want them out. Why are they continuing to put more money in to a project that will always be protested? We will never approve it."

The Klabona Keepers blockaded Imperial Metals' Red Chris mine in August because of concerns about a tailings pond, but stopped the protest when talks began between the company and the Tahltan Central Council. Last year, the group blocked Fortune Minerals Ltd. from doing work on a coal deposit. On Monday, the B.C. government announced a temporary hold on coal exploration permits in the area.

"I don't want people to get the impression we're against all development. We're not. But these places are sacred and we want to keep it [untouched]," said Ms. Quock.

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