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A geologist looks out at the area of the Red Chris Mine site.

With construction for the $500-million Red Chris mine already under way, a group has launched a campaign to persuade the owner to make the project an underground rather than an open-pit operation.

Red Chris, owned by Vancouver-based Imperial Metals, is a copper-gold project located 80 kilometres south of Dease Lake in northwestern B.C. and near Todagin Mountain, which is home to wildlife including caribou and mountain sheep. Imperial has been working on the project for several years and hopes to bring it into production when the Northwest Transmission Line – long seen as the key to unlocking industrial projects in the region – is finished, likely in 2014.

To date, the push for the underground alternative consists of a "clean mining" website and several print advertisements featuring topless people – both men and women – with the tag line "topless is great – unless you're a mountain."

An underground operation would reduce the impact of the mine on area land, water and wildlife, says Monty Bassett, a Smithers-based filmmaker and one of the backers of the campaign. Author and anthropologist Wade Davis also backs the initiative, along with some members of the Tahltan First Nation.

The mine's owner, however, says Red Chris is not well-suited for an underground operation because its minable deposits start relatively close to the surface.

"Red Chris [deposits] come right to surface and it lends itself very well to open-pit mining," Imperial vice-president Steve Robertson said on Thursday. "Open-pit mining is far more cost-effective and lower-risk – much safer. There are all kinds of reasons why you would want to do open-pit mining if you can, rather than use underground methods."

The open pit would be about 10 kilometres from the peak of Todagin Mountain, Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Robertson said he wasn't able to estimate how much more an underground operation might cost because it hadn't been considered. Exploration in recent years has pinpointed other, deeper deposits that could be suitable for underground mining, but that has yet to be determined.

"It is possible that at some point in the future, that kind of mining would be considered – but we have not done any feasibility on that," he said.

Red Chris has a contentious history. A dispute over the environmental assessment for the project went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which in 2010 found the federal government had erred in splitting the project into parts for review. The court, however, did not require the process to be redone.

The Clean Mining project is a follow-up to a successful campaign to stop gas drilling in the Klappan, an area also known as the Sacred Headwaters. In December, the Tahltan Central Council, Shell Canada and the B.C. government announced a three-way agreement in which Shell gave up its leases in the area and the province said it would not issue permits in the region.

The Clean Mining initiative appears to be taking a leaf out of the same book, dubbing Todagin Mountain "Serengeti in the Sky" and emphasizing the area's importance as wildlife habitat.