When freedom of information requests lead to a ‘holy shit’ moment

In our latest newsletter, reporter Matt Simmons shares the details behind his investigations into Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s response to Coastal GasLink construction

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It was back in October when northwest B.C. reporter Matt Simmons broke a story: Coastal GasLink was drilling its pipeline under a river on Wet’suwet’en territory — and it was doing it at the riskiest time for spawning salmon.

Just how risky? And were regulators monitoring what was happening on the ground? Getting any answers proved to be no easy feat.

For months, Fisheries and Oceans Canada wouldn’t say anything about its role in monitoring the project and protecting fish habitat. So, in late November, Matt filed a series of freedom of information requests.

He recently got back some documents — and boy are they full of jaw-dropping details. Not only did Fisheries and Oceans Canada quietly back off on monitoring while pipeline work killed fish, but the federal department also failed to disclose Coastal GasLink’s own estimates that there were at least 273,000 salmon eggs at a major river crossing in the path of the pipeline.

That was news to Shannon McPhail, co-founder of Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. Matt’s reporting back in October prompted McPhail to reach out to Fisheries and Oceans Canada to ask how many living salmon eggs were in the path of the pipeline at the river crossing.

An official told McPhail it was “impossible to confirm.”

But the documents Matt acquired showed the federal department wasn’t telling the whole story.

“I went through the documents really carefully, comparing everything to the responses Shannon had received,” Matt told me. “Seeing the Coastal GasLink contractor’s detailed, data-driven response was a total shock, in light of what Fisheries and Oceans Canada had said.”
An illustration of salmon eggs in a box marked 'do not disclose / ne pas divulguer' in front of a Fisheries and Oceans Canada logo

Two hundred and seventy-three thousand was the pipeline contractor’s “conservative estimate” for coho salmon eggs with “the potential to be impacted by vibrations” from construction work.

“I kept re-reading the emails and the docs,” Matt said, “jumping back and forth between them, and I’m pretty sure I was mumbling to myself ‘holy shit.’ ”

McPhail used a few different words: “You’re fucking kidding me,” she blurted out on a phone call with Matt.

Coastal GasLink says drilling won’t disturb salmon eggs. The company told Fisheries and Oceans Canada that inspectors visit the site daily and that industry biologists have been monitoring water quality on a constant basis.

Provincial and federal regulators have also said drilling won’t disturb salmon eggs, but they wouldn’t share details of evidence they’ve reviewed about potential drilling impacts.

Matt sent Fisheries and Oceans Canada numerous questions for his salmon eggs story, asking whether it was involved in inspections or monitoring. But, despite reaching out more than two weeks before we published the piece, officials still haven’t answered.

“I have lots of unanswered questions and nearly every time I get one answer, it turns into a Pandora’s box, leading me to more questions,” Matt said.

Rest assured, he’ll continue to dig — especially when government officials won’t talk.

Take care and always re-read your emails,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience
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A poster for the War for the Woods doc, with Steph Wood and David Suzuki looking up at a tree.

The Narwhal on the big screen

We’re always working on projects behind the scenes at The Narwhal — and now one of those projects is coming to life. In the summer, reporter Steph Wood travelled to Clayoquot Sound with David Suzuki and The Nature of Things to create a documentary about the legacy of logging in this rare temperate rainforest.

War for the Woods, produced by Makwa Creative and Antica Productions, will debut on CBC on​​ March 17 at 9 p.m. ET, followed by a special screening at Hot Docs in Toronto on March 20. The film is narrated by Steph, and based on reporting she did for The Narwhal. You can check out the teaser trailer here!


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