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Mobilization of exploration equipment at Red Chris project 2008.Daniel Henshaw/Imperial Metals

A proposed open pit mine at the centre of Premier Christy Clark's jobs plan and an anticipated B.C. mining boom is embroiled in a conflict with a first nation over how it would affect the water in a pristine wilderness area in northwest B.C.

The Red Chris gold-copper mine project, located 80 kilometres south of Dease Lake in northern B.C., received a provincial Mines Act permit on May 4.

The mine proposal, one of the province's most advanced, is at the heart of Ms. Clark's B.C. Jobs Plan promise to open eight new mines by 2015 and reduce the backlog of mining permits by 80 per cent by August of 2012. If it is built, Red Chris is expected to bring 250 full-time jobs for 28 years to a region with chronically high unemployment.

The Tahltan Nation of northwest B.C. say they will fight the construction of Red Chris unless the risk of water pollution is minimized on their traditional hunting grounds – which as recently as 2006 was the site of protests against resource development in which roads were blocked and elders arrested.

Annita McPhee, president of the Tahltan Central Council, which represents about 3,500 Tahltan on resource matters, does not rule out the same level of civil disobedience that greeted Shell Canada Ltd., when it explored for coal-bed methane in an area known to the Tahltan as the Sacred Headwaters. "Some of our people feel concerned enough that they will meet this project with resistance."

The Tahltan went public with their concerns about the mine on the day the government announced the permit. Ms. McPhee said Red Chris would transform part of the Klappan Valley into a vast tailings pond near the headwaters of three of B.C.'s biggest rivers – the Stikine, the Nass and the Skeena. They are not closing the door on Red Chris, Ms. McPhee said, but adequate protection for the waters is essential.

B.C.'s Minister of Energy and Mines, Rich Coleman, said he is confident that the Tahltan concerns can be resolved. "Collaboration between the government, company and the Tahltan will continue over the life of the project," he said. "There's a ton of work that will continue to go on with the Tahltan."

A spokesman for Imperial Metals Corporation, owner of the company that wants to build the mine, said it is in discussions with the Tahltan on how the tailings facility will be constructed, noting that the permit announced last Friday is just one of about 15 separate permits required before production could start.

Tahltan anger over the Red Chris mine comes just as B.C. Hydro is extending the provincial electrical grid into the northwest corner of the province in hopes of powering a mining boom – tapping dozens of promising mineral and hydro prospects, including nine big projects in Tahltan territory alone. Making this boom a reality will require good relations with the Tahltan, whose traditional territory encompasses more than 90,000 square kilometres of pristine, mineral-rich land.

"If you're announcing permits without adequately addressing our concerns, it doesn't set a very good precedent in our territory," Ms. McPhee said. "This puts us in a place where we don't trust the government.

Ms. McPhee said the Tahltan will evaluate new mine proposals on a project-by-project basis, noting that many community members are uncomfortable with the swift pace of development. "Looking at our nation as a whole, how can anyone justify having nine projects at once? How is that sustainable?"

Special to The Globe and Mail

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