09/30/2013 05:44 EDT | Updated 11/30/2013 05:12 EST

Cheslatta Carrier Nation Apply For Kenney Dam Water Licence

CANADA - OCTOBER 19: Dead white trees were drowned by the formation of this reservoir, Kenney Dam Reservoir, Nechako River, British Columbia, Canada (Photo by Chris Johns/National Geographic/Getty Images)

VICTORIA - An aboriginal band in north-central B.C. has moved towards harnessing the power of a hydro-electric dam that flooded their territory and imprinted images of floating coffins into their history.

Sixty-two years after the Kenney Dam flooded the traditional territory of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, destroying hunting, fishing and living areas and drying up parts of the Nechako River, the Prince George-area nation plans to profit from the structure built without their consultation to power the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter in Kitimat.

Cheslatta spokesman Mike Robertson said the Cheslatta formally applied for a provincial water licence on Monday.

Robertson said the band has approached BC Hydro with plans to develop a 45 megawatt hydroelectric project at the Kenney Dam site that would generate power from a proposed spillway nearby.

"We've been doing formal research on this project for 30 years or more," said Robertson. "It's not a new project by any means but it's the first time somebody's actually started the engine and started driving the project."

Robertson said the Cheslatta's Nechako River Legacy Project aims to stop flooding of Cheslatta Lake and river by releasing water from the Kenney Dam reservoir directly into the 10-kilometre section of the Nechako River, including the Nechako River Canyon, which has been dry since 1952 when the damn was constructed to create energy to power the aluminum smelter in Kitimat.

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

Robertson said the dam's original design and construction did not include a spillway and massive releases of water from the reservoir system forced the Cheslatta to flee villages. The Cheslatta River valley was flooded, with the surge of water depositing tonnes of silt, gravel and debris into Cheslatta Lake.

The dam's water also destroyed grave sites and human remains and fragments from smashed caskets are still being discovered today along the Cheslatta Lake shoreline, he said.

"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.

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.

The $280-million Nechako River Legacy Project would face up to two years of environmental approval processes, with a possible construction date within three years, Robertson said.

"It's incredibly significant what happened here (today)," said Robertson from Prince George. "That's been a long outstanding dream of the Cheslatta people, to actually have authority over the water inside their territory."

But Rio Tinto Alcan controls the water flows through the Kenny Dam and generates huge revenues from the dam's power generation. The company would need to be on board with the Cheslatta project if the band hopes to generate some of its own power.

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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