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With all eyes on Tetzan Biny (Fish Lake) in central BC and the looming threat of government approval of Taseko's proposed Prosperity Mine, the proponents of the Mt. Milligan mine in northern BC have managed to avoid public scrutiny. But although it's stayed below the radar, the Mt. Milligan project could turn out to be just as controversial.
Before it was called Mt. Milligan, the area where the proposed open pit mine would be located was known to the Nak'azdli people as Shus Nadloh. It is a sacred area and an important watershed. Even so, Thompson Creek Metals, the mine proponent, makes the claim that the company can restore the area after mining, and replace fish habitat in the meantime by building reservoirs. The same claim is made by Taseko with respect to its proposed Prosperity Mine.
Building and operating the proposed Mt. Milligan mine near Prince George would mean turning a two-kilometre-long fish-bearing creek into a waste dump for potentially acid-leaching rock. The move to use the King Richard Creek Valley for waste disposal would result in almost three hundred million tonnes of waste rock being dumped into the creek, eliminating fish and marine life.
In a move hailed by local newspapers as a "breakthrough," the McLeod Lake Indian Band struck a revenue-sharing deal with the province for the Mt. Milligan mine. According to Black Press' bclocalnews.com, the McLeod Lake Band would receive as much as $38 million over the 15-year life of the copper and gold mine.
The McLeod Lake Band are Tse’khene peoples. The band independently affiliated with Treaty 8 in 2000. Treaty 8 was originally created in 1899 around the time of the gold rush; by signing the treaty, aboriginal title over land is ceded in exchange for "reserve lands, and other benefits," according to BC's Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation's website.
But diverting dollars to the McLeod Lake Band doesn't guarantee the project a green light.
The Nak'azdli Band is a member of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council (CTSC), which pulled out of the BC Treaty Commission in 2006.
"We're not opposed to the project per se, but we want to work with the company and also with the province if we can get there," Chief Fred Sam of the Nak'azdli told the Vancouver Media Co-op in a phone interview.
Neither the Nak'azdli nor the CSTC have ceded their lands to British Columbia, or to Canada.
"We have... ongoing concern about the environment, and just the way things are being handled.... We're not happy with environmental process," he said.
The Mt. Milligan mine is slated to destroy King Richard Creek. Terrane has already received provincial approval of the environmental assessment.
Though past press releases from the Nak'azdli have signaled strong resistance to the Mt. Milligan mine, Sam says his community is waiting for the BC government to provide more information about the project and the possible benefits to the Nak'azdli before making any kind of decision on whether they'll support the mine.
"Once we get something from BC, then we'll present it to our community members, and we want them to say 'yea' or 'nay,'" said Sam, noting the possibility that this vote could happen within a few months.
The Halfway River First Nation and the West Moberly First Nation are also located near the proposed mine site.
Denver-based Thompson Creek Metals Company acquired Vancouver-based Terrane Metals Corp. in July 2010. The company has already begun building roads into the Mt. Milligan mine area, and plans to invest over $827 million in the proposed mine and the mill.
According to Thompson Creek Metals, the proposed open pit mine contains 2.1 billion pounds of copper and six million ounces gold, and would provide 400 direct jobs over 22 years.
Existing controversy around the Mt. Milligan mine is buried in forward-looking statements on the company's website. But if the Nak'azdli people are forced to stand up and protect Shus Nadloh and King Richard Creek, the facts on the ground—namely, the uncertainties around rights and title—may suddenly come into relief.
Dawn Paley is a journalist in Vancouver. This article was originally published by the Vancouver Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.