By Shannon McPhail
Let’s go back to 2005.
Eskay Creek was winding down and Galore Creek was planning the next big mine but there was little certainty that anything would go through. The safe assumption would be that communities would jump at the chance for jobs in the mining sector on an emerging project like Fortune Minerals.
Three commonly known rules in building a successful business: Location, location, location.
Fortune’s open-pit coal mine they call Arctos Anthracite, proposed for Mt. Klappan, rises above the iconic valleys of the legendary Spatsizi Wilderness Plateau in the heart of the Sacred Headwaters. Generations old Tahltan hunting camps dot the caribou rich flanks and the headwaters of the Nass, Skeena and Stikine are visible from the summit.
Fortune Minerals pushed hard even though community members turned down their jobs and blockaded the company in order to protect the culture and hunting values they have at Mt. Klappan.
Like a bully in the playground, Fortune had 15 community members arrested, including 13 elders from Iskut. These arrests rattled the community and broke the hearts of the grandchildren who stood helpless as their grandparents were carted away in handcuffs. This sparked an international campaign to protect the area from large-scale industrial development.
It was Fortune’s arrests that uncovered Shell’s plans to drill for coalbed methane.
The Tahltan Nation collaborated with downstream residents to oppose Shell’s ill-conceived idea while Fortune waited quietly in the background. Municipal governments and First Nations from all three watersheds supported a unified campaign to protect the Headwaters. It didn’t make sense to transform the source of our wild salmon rivers into an industrial wasteland.
In 2008, the province responded with a four-year moratorium on coalbed methane in the headwaters.
In December 2012, Shell voluntarily withdrew its plans and the BC government permanently banned all future oil and gas activities citing, “The Klappan is an area that has been identified by the Tahltan Nation as having significant cultural, spiritual, and social values. It is also an area of vital salmon-bearing waterways such as the Stikine, Nass, and Skeena rivers, and as such has importance for all British Columbians who rely on those rivers.”
Just as Shell’s plans headed to the shredder and the BC government commits to a planning process with the Tahltan for the headwaters, Fortune Minerals rides in on its black horse kicking up dust in everyone’s eyes. The Tahltan and communities didn’t fight for 10 years to protect the headwaters so Fortune could proceed with an open-pit coalmine right in the heart of it.
The only thing standing in the way of permanent protection is Fortune Minerals.
Let’s have Fortune admit the truth, their mineral claims are in an unfortunate location. Their plan to reconstruct the 60-year-old crumbling railway from Fort St. James to Dease Lake and run 24,000 tonnes of coal every three days for 25 years is an irrevocable blow to the Klappan and upper Skeena river. That’s 100km of railway right beside our pristine Skeena as it flows from the Sacred Headwaters.
A 1977 BC Royal Commission into the condition of this abandoned railgrade regarded it, “...as one of the most serious unresolved environmental problems in British Columbia.”
Those problems continue to this day and Fortune’s proposed reconstruction of the railway for an industrial corridor would drastically increase the likelihood that other companies will jump on the train and pursue lesser known coal tenures scattered along the Skeena and its headwater tributaries. Our wild salmon and steelhead swimming through it all.
The mining sector has a whole lot going for it along Highway 37 – mining, exploration, hydro projects, transmission lines, etc. all moving forward. What we need in the Sacred Headwaters are healthy rivers, wild salmon and areas of cultural identity that we can share with our children.
Will Fortune Minerals continue to waste taxpayer time and money on this bad idea when we know it will never happen?
Shannon McPhail is the Executive Director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition and the 2013 recipient of the Northern BC Community Enrichment Award.