Stacked with Tahltan elders in the defense box, a British Columbian Supreme Court granted Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine an indefinite injunction to prevent future blockades of its operations near the community of Iskut on November 26.
The Klabona Keepers, a group of Tahltan elders and families protecting the area know as Tl’abãne, erected a blockade in August to halt operations at the Red Chris mine after toxic sludge was released from a tailings pond at another Imperial Metals owned mine, Mount Polley. The dam break has devastated areas surrounding Quesnel Lake.
Following an agreement to remove the blockade while a third-party review was conducted of the Red Chris mine tailings pond, the Klabona Keepers grew ever more fearful that their traditional territories would face a similar disaster if the mine were to begin operations. In October the Keepers resurrected the blockade and were served with a temporary court injunction soon after. However, to prevent any further interference with their operations, Imperial Metals sought an indefinite injunction against the Klabona Keepers as the company moves forward with the opening of the mine.
“Today came as no surprise to us,” Klabona Keepers spokesperson Rhoda Quock said. “We knew Red Chris was going to be granted the court injunction and an enforcement order. Now we will go back to our community and we will discuss the bigger picture. We’re not stopping. There are other ways to fight this, and we will.”
Following the tailings pond disaster at Mount Polley near Likely, British Columbia that saw billions of gallons of tailings sludge released into the local environment—including the Quesnel Lake watershed, which connects with the Fraser River system, one of the largest salmon bearing rivers in the world—the Klabona Keepers 750 miles north were concerned that a similar event would destroy their traditional ways of life.
“When I visited the Klabona Keepers I ate moose, elk and caribou,” Kanahus Manual, a member of the Secwepemc Nation whose traditional territories were affected by the Mount Polley breech, told Justice Robert Punnett during proceedings. “There are people still living there—very, very traditional, much more than the rest of the province.”
During the two days of court proceedings, Punnett acknowledged that the scope of the decision was narrow.
“My role today is a restrictive one,” he admitted in response to arguments made by the Klabona Keepers regarding their aboriginal right and title to their traditional territories, when they referenced the Tsilhqot’in First Nation case upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada earlier this year.
Although the Tahltan Central Council (TCC), the governing body of the Tahltan Nation, had applied as interveners to appear with Red Chris, they withdrew after the first day of hearings. The Klabona Keepers traditional territory and the small community of Iskut sits only a few miles from the Red Chris mine, which has a tailings pond of similar design but almost three times as large as Mount Polley.
Recently a third-party review of the Red Chris tailings pond was conducted and 22 recommendations issued, to be completed before the mine begins to discharge wastewater into the pond.
Key concerns found during the review conducted by Klohn Crippen Berger Engineering focused on the “high permeability” of soils within the two earthen dams surrounding the tailings pond and the possibility of leakage over the life of the mine.
“Any failure of the Red Chris impoundment will likely have a much more significant environmental impact than the Mount Polley failure,” the report stated.
Although preliminary operations have been proceeding at Red Chris in preparation to begin extracting more than 33,000 tons per day of copper and gold, the company is still waiting to receive permits from the B.C. Ministry of Environment to discharge effluent from its tailings pond. Despite that, Red Chris spokesman Steve Robertson said the company hopes to begin operations in the coming months.
“This injunction doesn’t really change things for us at all,” Robertson said. “This is pretty much status quo for us, so it just means that we’re going to be allowed access to our project, and we’re going to continue to work on it as we go forward. We continue to work productively with the Tahltan Central Council, and we discuss with them and consult with them on a regular basis.”
However, Quock said the Tahltan Central Council, which supports Red Chris, does not represent all Tahltans. In addition the Klabona Keepers have their own governing system and will pursue other avenues to ensure the mine project doesn’t move forward, Quock said. Tahltan President Chad Day was not available for comment.
“The Tahltan Central Council is not our governing body because they’re a society,” Quock said. “We have our own governing body. We do it in our traditional ways, and that is through our elders. At this point we’re not even talking about blockades. At this point we’re putting our house together.”