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Inspectors note that Coastal GasLink violated permits and has littered up the environment.
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Inspectors note that Coastal GasLink violated permits and has littered up the environment.

Coastal GasLink has trashed up the environment and violated permits, inspectors note

A pool of water overflowing with Jerry cans containing gas. Oil barrels left on the ground. A dumpster overflowing with garbage, with its lid uncovered and bags of trash left in bear territory. Seepage of murky water into streams, lakes and rivers.

These are scenes from the Coastal GasLink Pipeline route as documented by provincial inspectors.

All of this, including impacts to watercourses, their beds and banks not properly restored after workers cleared the land in preparation for laying pipe, violates the terms of its project approval — adding to a growing list of 11 non-compliance orders issued by B.C.’s environmental assessment office since construction on the project began in 2019, including three new orders issued in November.

Collectively, the enforcement orders reveal a pattern of Coastal GasLink failing to abide by the rules of the pipeline project’s environmental permits, despite the repeated written warnings and orders.

Inspectors discovered that willows had been planted to revegetate the banks. However, the stakes were too small and too shallow, which limited their chances of survival. “The willow stakes had more than 25 centimetres left exposed and the planting rate of one stem per 15 centimetres was often not met,” inspectors stated in a report dated Sept. 23, 2021, that laid out their concerns about environmental infractions along the pipeline’s right-of-way.

According to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, an administrative penalty was recommended by the inspectors. This could be a daily fine of up to $750,000 for each day that infractions are not corrected. In the coming weeks, the ministry will determine whether a penalty is necessary — or if additional information is needed — and then give Coastal GasLink another chance to respond to its findings and any proposed penalty.

“Matters of non-compliance are taken very seriously — as evidenced by the recent orders that included taking the additional step of recommending an administrative penalty for continued non-compliance,” the Ministry of Environment told The NarwhalAn emailed statement.

While Coastal GasLink, owned by TC Energy, largely admitted to errors in responses to the inspections throughout the report, it also disputed whether it needed to do everything outlined by inspectors, arguing that some of it was “optional” and not mandatory.

“As willow staking is an optional mitigation intended to help promote new growth along a reclaimed watercourse bank, Coastal GasLink argues that any use of willow staking (whether it adheres to the typical guidance or not) is more beneficial than no willow staking,” the company said in response to the inspectors’ findings.

History of infractions

The Coastal GasLink pipeline, if completed, would transport 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily, with capacity to expand to five billion cubic feet per day, from sources in B.C.’s northeast to the LNG Canada facility currently under construction on Haisla territory in Kitimat.

Overflowing pools of water containing Jerry cans of gasoline. Oil barrels laying on the ground. A dumpster overflowing with oil, its lid open, and garbage bags left out in bear territory. These are scenes taken from the #CoastalGasLink route. #Environment #BC

On Nov. 9, nine days before RCMP units began arresting Wet’suwet’en land defenders on Gidimt’en clan territory in northwest B.C., the province’s environmental assessment office issued three more non-compliance orders to Coastal GasLink related to the Sept. 23 report.

Sleydo’ Molly Wickham, a wing chief of Cas Yikh house and Gidimt’en camp spokesperson, said the company’s history of environmental infractions is a key part of why Gidimt’en members and supporters are committed to preventing the company from drilling under the Wedzin Kwa (Morice) River.

Wickham and his friends occupied the Coastal GasLink drilling site after the company cleared land in September. Land defenders, acting under the authority of Dinï ze’ (Chief) Woos of Cas Yikh House, held the location for 50 days before enforcing an eviction order first issued by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs on Jan. 4, 2020, triggering a chain of events that led to the arrests of more than 30 land defenders, supporters and journalists.

“We have the ability to drink water right out of our river,” Wickham told The NarwhalInterview conducted days before being arrested. “We cannot afford for Wedzin Kwa to be destroyed.”

Elected chief Maureen Luggi and councillors Karen Ogen and Heather Nooski, of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, one of five Wet’suwet’en band councils in the 22,000 square kilometre territory, have said that those opposed to the project do not speak for all Wet’suwet’en people.

“We want to make it absolutely clear that the actions of a few members of the Gidimt’en clan who claimed to evict Coastal GasLink and the RCMP from the headwaters of the Morice River (Wedzin Kwa in our language) do not represent the collective views of the clan or of most Wet’suwet’en people,” they wrote in a public statement on Nov. 14.

About 140 community members are represented by the chief and councillors, with roughly half living on-reserve west Burns Lake. But it was not immediately clear how project supporters view Coastal GasLink’s environmental infractions.

The Narwhal I reached out to the chief of staff and council, but did not get a response before publication.

Candis Callison, a professor of journalism, told the story The Narwhal in September, it’s vital to remember that all communities — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — rarely agree on an issue unanimously.

“There has to be more spaces for dissent within Indigenous communities,” she said. “In B.C. politics, there’s so much room for dissent within the NDP party, within the BC Liberals. And yet somehow, Indigenous people have to package themselves for mainstream narratives as if there’s no dissent within.”

Inspections of Coastal GasLink flagged pollutants, garbage and “‘project-related”’ impacts to watersheds

The November orders followed another issued on Sept. 24, noting the company has been out of compliance since May 7, 2020, for not posting signage to “identify sensitive environmental features to ensure they are protected.”

Chris Parks and Clayton Smith, members of the province’s compliance and enforcement division, also found the company was not meeting its requirements to prevent human-wildlife interactions by properly securing, storing and disposing of attractants — like food — in vehicles and at work camps. The inspectors first flagged the problem in 2019 and noted recent inspections included a work camp on Unist’ot’en territory, where attractants were left “in project vehicles in a manner accessible and being accessed by wildlife.”

They also found improper storage of oil barrels, diesel generators, gas canisters, and drip trays underneath heavy machinery and fuel tanks. Some of these were overflowing with contaminated waters.

COVID blamed

The company responded that its workforce was diminished due to public health orders related to COVID-19, but inspectors said “at the time of inspection workforce restrictions were no longer in place.”

One year after the company was found to have inadequately prevented sediment-laden water entering four wetlands, more than a dozen watercourses and more, including the Clore River (a tributary the Skeena River) and important habitats for wild salmon and steelhead, officers conducted follow up inspections in October. The findings were again disputed between Coastal GasLink inspectors and Coastal GasLink.

In the report, Coastal GasLink claimed sediment-laden runoff on Wet’suwet’en territory was not a product of work on the pipeline. The company told the province it is “confident that what is identified as sediment being deposited on the lake ice, is in fact natural tannins leaching out of the forest during spring melt. This is a natural process and should not be associated with Coastal GasLink’s [erosion and sediment control] compliance record.”

Inspectors disagreed.

“No evidence, such as a signed submission by a qualified professional, was provided to verify this assertion,” the report noted. “Similar lakes in the area did not appear to show the same visible amount of sediment-laden runoff transporting into them.”

“On the balance of probabilities, the sediment-laden water observed to reach the lake at this location is project related,” inspectors concluded.

“This has been ongoing for the last couple of years, these violations, and there’s a big question of how the government can allow the company to continue pouring sediment into our local rivers and wetlands, without any real consequences,” Greg Knox, executive director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, told The NarwhalIn an interview, he mentioned that the Clore River is among the top steelhead rivers worldwide.

Knox explained the impacts of sediment — from pipeline construction, logging, road-building and landslides — can be fatal to fish.

“It’s deposited on top of the gravel, which prevents water from flowing under and through the gravel and that’s what brings oxygen to the salmon and steelhead eggs. So you basically suffocate salmon and steelhead.”

“It can also kill juvenile salmon at high concentrations and impede adults from being able to draw oxygen out of the water,” he added.

For Mike Langegger, a Kitimat resident and employee of Rio Tinto’s local aluminum smelter, whether you are for or against industrial development shouldn’t come into play when considering these infractions — it’s about balance.

“I work in industry, I get it,” he said in an interview. “It’s created a great quality of life for myself, personally, my family, for my peers, it’s good for the community.”

“We’re in the middle of a boom,” he continued, noting the economic boost the LNG Canada facility, under construction in Kitimat and which will be fed by the Coastal GasLink pipeline, has brought to the community. Langegger, an avid hunter and fisher, said while industry brings benefits, he’s concerned about the impacts an influx of industrial development will have on his community. “If you don’t have teeth in your regulations and bylaws, really what do you have? You have these companies that have more money than some countries.”

Coastal GasLink had until Nov. 19 for confirmation that the measures were in place to bring the project back to compliance. Natasha Westover is the media spokesperson for this pipeline project. The NarwhalIn an email statement, the company stated that it is cooperating with environmental assessment office.

“Erosion and sediment control is dynamic and changes constantly,” Westover wrote. “We adapt along the way and are constantly evaluating places along the project that require attention and are working to ensure that erosion and sediment control is managed appropriately.”

“Coastal GasLink continues to cooperate with the [environmental assessment office] and all other appropriate regulatory agencies to meet their requirements, standards, expectations and reviews,” Westover added.

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy stated that the company had provided evidence of compliance with human-wildlife interactions and that the enforcement department continues to investigate other infractions.

“Verification of compliance at those sites will require ongoing evaluation and follow-up, including site inspections,” a ministry spokesperson told The Narwhal.

B.C. holds ‘significant enforcement powers’ to prevent further impacts

Knox said he’s not convinced Coastal GasLink will adequately address its environmental infractions, given the company’s history of failing to remedy problems flagged by the environmental assessment office and the province’s history of issuing warnings and orders but not taking further action.

“The question is, whose interests does the province have here?” Knox asked. “Is it the people of B.C. “, and the people living in the communities that are affected by this? Or are they upholding the company’s best interests? Because they’re not acting on these issues — the company continues to get away with these infractions with little or no consequence.”

He added the province’s lack of decisive action is inconsistent with B.C.’s salmon conservation goals.

“The government of B.C. The government of B.C. has committed to protecting salmon, steelhead, as well as to increasing their efforts through the development of a B.C. Wild salmon strategy, and more robust tools to preserve salmon habitat. And yet, they continue to allow industry to do whatever they want.”

He explained that the Clore River system is already severely affected by logging, including road building, and is becoming more prone to landslides due to climate change’s extreme rainfall events.

“This added siltation from pipeline construction means that the habitat in that system is being severely degraded,” he said, noting local chinook and steelhead populations are in decline, due to cumulative impacts of industrial development and climate change.

“The solution to this problem is to enforce the rules,” he continued. “If [Coastal GasLink] isn’t willing to do proper construction that minimizes impacts on salmon habitat and water, then they should be stopped until they can clean up their act.”

“We’ve seen so many environmental infractions through this whole time,” Howihkat Freda Huson, a chief of Unist’ot’en clan, told The NarwhalOctober “They just [get a]Give a slap on the wrist and a little penalty. The government makes all the rules and they watered down all the rules.”

Gavin Smith, West Coast Environmental Law lawyer, said The NarwhalTo ensure that any infractions are stopped in their tracks, the Environmental Assessment Act grants the environmental assessment office power and authority.

“It could [be] stopping work entirely and stepping in and actually actively overseeing or even, in theory, performing certain measures to ensure that the act is being complied with,” he said in an interview. “But that’s not the path that they’ve chosen.”

“The intention of the act was to have … significant enforcement powers in place that could be used if there’s recurring instances of non-compliance, for example,” he added. “I’m not sure that we’ve seen that borne out in practice.”

Last year, after Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en clans flagged concerns about wetlands to the environmental assessment office, inspectors discovered the company did not follow its own wetlands management plan and adversely impacted 42 ecologically sensitive areas along the pipeline route and also failed to follow proper procedure to mitigate impacts to whitebark pine, an endangered species in Canada.

As The NarwhalThe province ordered Coastal GasLink stop all work within 30 m of wetlands. The company was required to send a qualified professional to conduct surveys, prepare mitigation plans, and notify the environmental assessment office to resume construction.

“Those qualified professionals are contractors or consultants that are being hired by Coastal GasLink,” Smith said. He noted the problematic nature of “having that lack of a degree of separation between someone who’s got power to essentially restart your project, who also happens to be on your payroll.”

Economic fate of Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada are intertwined

Provincial fines issued to Coastal GasLink, which could escalate to include court-imposed penalties of up to $1,000,000 for a first conviction and up to $2,000,000 for subsequent convictions should they fail to make amends, would put the company’s relations with the Kitimat gas liquefaction facility on shakier ground.

LNG Canada is a partnership of Shell Canada, Petronas and PetroChina, Mitsubishi, and Korea Gas. This summer, a dispute was made public between LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink over increasing costs and delays on the pipeline project — and who would ultimately be responsible for these cost overruns. Initially, Coastal GasLink was estimated to cost $4 billion to construct in 2012. However, estimates for its completion by 2019 had risen to $6.6 billion. A more recent price tag for the pipeline has not been made public, but TC Energy stated in its Oct. 29, 2021 quarterly shareholder report that it expects “project costs to increase significantly.”

Coastal GasLink borrowed $840million from TC Energy to continue construction of the pipeline this fall. It repaid the loan in October. Then, it borrowed additional amounts totaling $175 million, which was owed at the time of the quarterly report. TC Energy has also committed a $3.3 billion short-term loan in support of the project, should it be necessary.

Cost overruns on Coastal GasLink could eventually fall on gas shippers through increased pipeline tolls that would mean less profit for all of the oil and gas companies involved — several of which are backing LNG Canada. And any delay to the pipeline’s completion is a delay to production, and revenue generation, at LNG Canada.

The government support is also a key factor in the economic viability of both projects. Both LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink have received significant subsidies from the government and tax breaks to help with construction. In 2020, the Coastal GasLink Project received a loan amounting to $500,000,000 from Export Development Canada, a federal agency. In 2019, LNG Canada added a $275,000,000 direct investment from the federal governments to a long-list of exemptions from the province and financial breaks.

“Oil and gas is not sustainable,” Wet’suwet’en hereditary Dinï ze’ (Chief) Dsta’hyl Adam Gagnon told The NarwhalInterview. Dsta’hyl, chief of Lihkt’samisyu clan, condemned the Nov. 18 and 19 arrests and said he considers continued government support of the projects deplorable.

“The Crown is sponsoring terrorism on the Wet’suwet’en and all First Nations across Canada. The federal government, the provincial government, and all First Nations across Canada are 100 percent unilaterally supporting terrorism [and]They’re financing it as well as supporting it. They’re pushing industry ahead to steamroll right over all Indigenous groups.”

In late 2019, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Canada to immediately halt construction of the pipeline and withdraw RCMP and security forces from Wet’suwet’en territory, noting it was disturbed by the “disproportionate use of force, harassment and intimidation by law enforcement officials against Indigenous peoples who peacefully oppose large-scale development projects on their traditional territories.”

“They have a lot to gain because they’re going to collect tax off of it and they’re subsidizing it at the same time to make sure it happens,” Huson said. She added while it’s true many locals are employed by the projects, especially during construction, those jobs are short-lived. If the pipeline is completed on time, it will be ready for use in 2023.

“Boom and bust, I call it,” she said. “They’re all going to make money real quick. They’ll have no job after that. And how long is that money going to last?”

“I have a strong feeling that everything is going to collapse, and they’re not gonna finish that project.”

“We were taught by our grandma and our parents that we had to take care of the land in order for it to take care of ourselves, and always taught that you don’t just take, take, take,” Huson said. “You only take what you need.”

“This is the headwaters, why we’re fighting so hard.”

Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for The Narwhal

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