Dispute over remote Canadian inlet pits Indians vs. Ottawa and a US mining company

Until recently, few people had heard of Alice Arm, an inlet in one of the most remote and beautiful regions of the western Canadian province of British Columbia.

But the nine-mile-long body of water, not far from the southern tip of the Alaska Panhandle, is now the focus of a national environmental controversy involving an Indian band, a huge American mining company, and the Canadian government.

The dispute, which will come to a head in the next few weeks, began last winter as the Canadian subsidiary of New York-based Amax Corp. prepared to open an abandoned molybdenum mine it had purchased close to the town of Kitsault, B.C.

Over the 25-year life of the mine, Amax Canada Ltd. will pump an estimated 100 million tons of waste into Alice Arm. Because of a disposal system designed to mix the tailings with water and deposit them on the bottom of the inlet, there to be covered by sediment, the company claims there will be no danger to marine life.

But the stacks of scientific evidence cited by Amax have failed to convince the 4,000 Nishga Indians. Backed by their own scientific consultants, they say there is no proof that trace metals such as radium 226 and uranium will not accumulate in the food chain -- endangering salmon stocks and future generations of Nishgas.

"Sure they tell us there's no danger as those metals concentrate over the years," blurts Rob Robinson, tribal council vice- president. "But what do I tell my children if they're wrong?"

What started as a little-known conflict 2,500 miles from Ottawa touched off a furor in Parliament when it was revealed earlier this year that the Canadian government, along with authorities in British Columbia, gave Amax special permits to ignore fisheries regulations on the dumping of tailings.

The storm of protest mounted in Ottawa when Amax experienced two much-publicized mishaps.

First, sandy sludge spilled over the shore of Alice Arm when the plastic pipe carrying the tailings plugged and broke. Then, a government research ship spotted a suspicious plume of tailings below the surface of the water -- a violation of Amax's disposal permit.

Thus, while the Nishgas have so far had little success in blocking Amax's permit, they seem to be winning the publicity battle.

A three-man scientific panel is reviewing the basis for Amax's dumpi ng permit and is to hand in an opinion early this month.

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