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B.C. First Nation applies for lucrative water licence

Tune in to Daybreak in northern B.C. on CBC Radio One just after 7 am for interview with Mike Robertson of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation.

The Nechako river, in the heart of the nation's traditional territory, was severely affected when the Kenney dam was built to power Rio Tinto's smelter in Kitimat. (CBC)

Sixty-two years after a dam flooded its traditional territory and dried up parts of north-central British Columbia's Nechako River, the Cheslatta Carrier Nation is moving to profit from the structure built to power the Rio Tinto smelter in Kitimat.

Cheslatta spokesman Mike Robertson says the nation has filed for a water licence application with the B.C. government for its proposed $280 million Nechako River Legacy Project.

The band is hoping to create a profit for the Cheslatta to bring the river back to life.

Robertson says they've considered the project for decades, but today's formal application marks a major milestone in an attempt to take advantage of the project that at one time flooded traditional grave sites and decimated a fresh-water fishery.

In 1952, the Kenney Dam was constructed to create energy to power the aluminum smelter in Kitimat.

The Cheslatta were not consulted about the project that reversed the flow of the Nechako River through a 16-kilometre tunnel to Kemano, the site of the smelter power plant near Kitimat.

"Submitting this application formally starts the process of getting back the water that was taken from us 62 years ago when the government issued a private company licence to all of the water in Cheslatta traditional territory" Chief Richard Peters said in a statement.

Rio Tinto Alcan controls water flows

The project envisions creating a small outlet of water from the dam that would power hydroelectric turbines, which would be connected to the BC Hydro grid. The band would earn revenue by selling the power to Hydro and once through the turbines, the water would then flow into the portions of the Neckako River that have been dry for so long.

Robertson says the band is proposing to work with BC Hydro, the B.C. government and Rio Tinto Alcan.

On Monday, Rio Tinto Alcan released a statement saying the company has participated in talks regarding the possibility of enhancing the downstream environment of the Nechako River by constructing a water release facility at the Kenney Dam.

But company spokeswoman Colleen Nyce said in a statement that the water the Cheslatta propose to use for their legacy project is water connected to a spillway linked to the dam's reservoir system at Skins Lake and there are legal agreements in place between the company and the federal and provincial governments. She would not elaborate on whether this would pose an obstacle to the Cheslatta.

She said Rio Tinto Alcan remains committed to working with the Cheslatta as they conduct technical work related to their project.

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