I love the sound of a helicopter engine spooling up as you sit inside waiting for takeoff. The morning we left Dease Lake for the Red Chris I actually had goose bumps on my arms anticipating the flight. We’d been up in an aircraft the day before with Wade Davis and that was an awesome trip too, but there is something about flying in a helicopter that still gets me excited.
Jim Reed was our pilot. He’s a transplanted Kiwi and has been flying there for years. He tells me all the mineral exploration work in the area has been a boon for the B.C. company he works for. But Red Chris is the only place where they’ve started work on a mine, and that’s where we’re headed.
Lifting off from Dease, you’re at the southeastern corner of the Stikine Plateau, a massive rolling table of land ringed with mountains. There are very few roads and few people.
In the distance you can see the cone of Mount Edziza, a volcano, and the ragged string of the coast mountains trailing in the distance. To the southeast the dark blue mountains around Spasizi Park and what the local first nations call the Sacred Headwaters.
The trip to the mine is great, and the scenery is spectacular. I like to think that I have pretty good eyes but Jim had to point out both a small herd of caribou and grizzly bear that we flew over. I probably would have missed them both if he’d stayed quiet.
We arrived at the mine and were greeted by Byng Giraud, Jenn MacPherson from Imperial Metals and Bill Adsit, the head of a construction company controlled by the Tahltan First Nation. Despite divisions within the Tahltan about the mine, the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation is doing a lot of the construction work for Imperial Metals, and on several other projects in the area. Adsit lives near Edmonton. A couple of weeks earlier he’d told me over the phone that there was no way he could be in the area for an interview when we were there. Now there he was… Funny how those things work out.
Imperial metals has a lot at stake at Red Chris. The company operates two other mines in B.C. but this is where it’s staking its future. They bought the rights to Red Chris from bcMetals a few years ago and if all goes according to plan will be producing copper and gold ore by 2014.
The mine site looked like pretty much any other construction camp when we were there. Heavy equipment was moving earth to prepare the site for a permanent camp, for the tailings ponds (possibly the most controversial aspect of the development) and the open pit itself.
The mine sits on a wide ridge, almost a plateau on the east side of Todagin Mountain. The location is significant because it’s near what the Tahltan call the Sacred Headwaters, and there is a stone sheep preserve several kilometers away on Todagin Mountain itself. Local opposition to the project revolves around the desire not to see development near the Sacred Headwaters or stone sheep preserve. There have been blockades to prevent other resource developments in the area, but so far construction continues at Red Chris
The company’s (and apparently the government’s) main argument is that the economic benefits of the mine outweigh the environmental risks. There will be a couple of hundred jobs created for the life of the mine and B.C. needs the royalty and tax revenue to pay for social programs. Byng Giraud says there are beautiful places all over B.C., but industrial development is necessary. Besides, he says, the overall footprint of the mine is quite small. But the company has yet to finalize any sort of benefits agreement with the Tahltan, and their support, or at least lack of active opposition is critical to the future of the mine.
As we fly out of the mine site I’m struck by how little most British Columbians recognize the value of metal to the world economy. The cost of preparing and operating a mine in the middle of nowhere can be recovered fairly quickly by customers hungry for copper and gold. But that is a valuation set by “the market.” The ecological value of leaving the area intact seems much harder to quantify.