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It was late evening on an early January weekend when word came that potential environmental damages were underway on a remote, mountainous section of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
To get its gas pipeline across Lho Kwa, a tributary of the Skeena River on Wet’suwet’en territory, Coastal GasLink seems to have used heavy machinery to dig a holding pool and install pumps, intended to divert the river around the crossing. But according to reports and photos, the company was not preventing sediment from flowing downstream while operating excavators in the river.
Getting up to the construction site at the crossing of Lho Kwa (Clore River) would have meant driving more than two hours from the town of Houston, B.C., on snowy backroads. With no guarantee that private security workers would allow access to the location, allies of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs started calling local helicopter companies. Two days later, they were in the air.
“It was alarming,” Tsebasa, a Likhts’amisyu clan chief who was on the Jan. 10 flight chartered by Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, said in an interview. “It’s just really hard to process. I was really quite disturbed by the complete disregard for the salmon, the water, the people — our rights as Wet’suwet’en people.”
Under permits issued by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission — the provincial regulator responsible for pipelines — the operator is required to install “appropriate erosion and sediment control structures” as a measure to make sure debris and soil don’t end up in waterways.
But Hereditary Chiefs and their supporters believe that didn’t happen.
“Here, we’ve had such a blatant ignoring of the rules, showing that violation and infraction of protection of ecosystems and salmon are just considered costs of doing business,” Severn Cullis-Suzuki, executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation, told The Narwhal.
Photos supplied to The Narwhal appear to show construction underway on Jan. 8 with no mitigation structures in place. When Tsebasa flew over two days later, fencing and other measures to control sediment had been added downstream of the crossing.
Too much sediment in the aquatic environment effectively suffocates salmon as it reduces available oxygen. According to Gary Michell, head ranger for Wet’suwet’en Fisheries who was on the flight with Tsebasa, Lho Kwa is spawning habitat for chinook, coho and steelhead — populations that have been in decline for decades.
“Skeena salmon and steelhead are facing many serious threats to their survival; digging up riverbeds without sediment and erosion control doesn’t help,” Michell said in a statement.
TC Energy, the Calgary-based company responsible for Coastal GasLink construction, referred The Narwhal to its website for a statement.
“At all our work sites, including the Clore River, the work we are doing is fully authorized and permitted by our regulators,” the statement said. “We are committed to following all regulations and work with regulators to address any issues.”
For Tsebasa, any further threats to struggling salmon populations are a validation of why the Likhts’amisyu oppose the pipeline.
“We’ve weighed out the pros and cons for our people, for the land, for the water, and we’ve decided 100 per cent, this is not a good project — not for us, not for the land and not for anybody,” she said.
If the allegations are confirmed, this wouldn’t be the first time Coastal GasLink has been found to be violating provincial requirements during construction of its $11.2 billion pipeline.
According to documents obtained by The Narwhal through access to information legislation, B.C. Oil and Gas Commission inspectors identified dozens of instances last fall in which the company was insufficiently preventing sedimentation from entering wetlands and watercourses or its erosion and sediment control measures were in need of maintenance.
TC Energy did not respond to The Narwhal’s question about whether it considers its prior infractions to be consistent with its statement about pipeline construction being fully authorized. In its online statement, the company noted it is subject to frequent inspections.
“On average, the project is inspected 12 times a month by regulators. Those inspections help ensure Coastal GasLink is meeting the province’s high regulatory standards and protecting the environment at the Clore River.”
B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office, which is tasked with ensuring construction is in compliance with the terms of its environmental assessment certificate, has issued 37 warnings and 17 orders over the past two years for infractions, primarily related to sediment.
Last fall, the office told The Narwhal it had conducted “multiple inspections this year along the entire length of the pipeline, by both helicopter and ground, and found ongoing concerns — in particular with erosion and sediment control that could impact sensitive fish habitat.”
Through its enforcement department, B.C. levied more than $200,000 in fines against the pipeline company. In July, 2022, it entered a compliance agreement with the company to address the persistent problems. But that agreement excludes areas where construction had already started — including Lho Kwa.
B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office told The Narwhal it received a complaint about the crossing on Jan. 8 and noted the complaint was also filed with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. It said that the latter is the lead regulator, so it referred the complaint to the commission.
“The Environmental Assessment Office takes matters of non-compliance very seriously,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “The [office] continues to actively monitor the requirements of the environmental certificate for the … pipeline project on an ongoing basis to make sure Coastal GasLink is meeting them.”
The office added its compliance and enforcement officers “have been finding continued improvement in [Coastal GasLink’s] mitigation measures for erosion and sediment control” over the past two months and noted the company is “cooperatively responding to address any site-specific concerns.”
The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission told The Narwhal the crossing is covered by permits it issued and authorizations under the province’s Water Sustainability Act.
“While the Commission did not receive a formal complaint through our normal process, we were notified, followed up and did not find any non-compliances,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
In response to the alleged impacts, Wet’suwet’en chiefs and supporters are calling on Fisheries and Oceans Canada to issue a stop-work order.
“If they can’t be in compliance, why should they be allowed to continue to work?” Na’moks, a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief from the T’sayu Clan, told The Narwhal. “It’s so offensive that the province and the feds can stand back and not take responsibility for killing clean water and species like salmon.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada told The Narwhal it is investigating.
“Fishery officers from the department’s conservation and protection branch are currently looking into the complaint of sedimentation in the Clore River as a result of the work being performed on the [Coastal GasLink] pipeline project,” a spokesperson wrote. “As such, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.”
When asked about its relationship with the federal agency, B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office said it has “collaborative relationships with other regulatory agencies and a good understanding of their mandates and authorities as they relate to specific projects.”
“If officers identify an issue with compliance that falls primarily under the responsibility of another agency, they will refer the matter to that agency for follow-up,” a spokesperson with the assessment office wrote. “When there is overlap between mandates and authorities, compliance and enforcement officers engage with the other agency to work collaboratively on the response.”
“This is just an example of how our colonial systems fragment the issues into different departments, different offices, different portfolios,” Cullis-Suzuki said. “And yet there are salmon eggs in that river and it’s Wet’suwet’en territory. Nobody seems to know whose responsibility it is to monitor or to enforce against violations.”
She added this jurisdictional fragmentation serves industry interests.
“Businesses are using that, they are working that angle,” she said. “They know that there’s all these different departments and agencies and they’re not waiting for the government to get their end of it in order.”
“That’s why we’re out there monitoring, because they’re not doing their job, obviously,” Na’moks said. He added taxpayers are footing the bill for the policing of a B.C. Supreme Court injunction issued against anyone taking action to oppose the project. “They’ve now spent over $27 million on the RCMP — why didn’t they put that into enforcement and protection of the environment, the water and fish species?”
Cullis-Suzuki called what’s happening on Wet’suwet’en territory “an embarrassment” in light of government commitments made during the recent COP15 conference on biodiversity in Montreal.
“If we’re serious about halting and reversing biodiversity loss, if we’re serious about having a chance at stabilizing our ecosystem degradation, if we’re serious about protecting salmon, we’ve got to get our systems together so they’re functional.”
“That success — those words, the agreements — completely depends on the ability of governments to hold up their end of the bargain.”
Tsebasa described her territory as sacred.
“You can hear the mountains talking to you,” she said, describing being on the land doing ceremony. “I know it sounds like a bunch of hocus pocus but it’s just such an incredibly strong place.”
“For me, as the chief that oversees and is the caretaker of this land, I’ve had to go up there, I need to see what’s happening. It’s incredibly devastating.”
“Somebody has to be held responsible for what’s happened up there,” she added.
Updated Jan. 15, 2023, 6:30 p.m. PT: A previous version of this story stated that for Tsebasa, a Likhts’amisyu clan chief, any further threats to struggling salmon populations are a validation of why the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs oppose the pipeline. The story has been updated to clarify that she is speaking to why the Likhts’amisyu clan oppose the project, and not all Hereditary Chiefs. The story has also been updated to remove a reference to school children.
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