British Columbia

Coastal GasLink reports 2 spills while tunnelling under Morice River in northern B.C.

The B.C. Energy Regulator is investigating after Coastal GasLink reported two spills of clay lubricant while it was tunnelling under the Morice River to build a natural gas pipeline through northern British Columbia. 

B.C.'s Energy Regulator investigates reports of clay lubricant release during pipeline construction

A stretch of river is shown, with snowy trees lining its banks.
The glacier-fed Morice River is a source of salmon and clean drinking water for the Wet'suwet'en people. Coastal GasLink is tunnelling under the riverbed. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

The B.C. Energy Regulator (BCER) is investigating after Coastal GasLink (CGL) reported two spills of clay lubricant while it was tunnelling under the Morice River to build a natural gas pipeline through northern British Columbia. 

The area around the Morice River has for years been the site of conflict between Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and supporters, and CGL, its workers and the RCMP. 

The salmon-bearing Morice River, on Wet'suwet'en traditional territory, is considered a sacred headwater called the Wedzin Kwa.

On Wednesday, CGL issued a statement that one spill had been detected on land, and another in a small tributary west of the Morice.

"With winter conditions still present, there is little water flow in the tributary," according to CGL. 

The company told CBC in an email that the size of the spills and what caused them were still being investigated, adding that the clay is "non-toxic" and no adverse impacts to fish or waterways are expected.

"We have always considered and prepared for the potential release of clay during micro-tunnelling ... [and have] robust mitigation measures ... in place to address it." 

Impacts 'vary' depending on the clay

According to the company, micro-tunnelling uses hydraulic jacks and a tunnel boring machine to push concrete casing segments through the soil deep under rivers during pipeline construction.

In an email to CBC News, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said that because the incident involved "instream work," it was not under the ministry's jurisdiction, but rather that of the BCER, formerly the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.

In an email to CBC News, the BCER said its compliance and enforcement officers have conducted an onsite visit and "continue to monitor the management, clean up, and potential impacts to the stream and aquatic life." 

"Potential impacts to waterways can vary depending on the amount of bentonite clay released and size and flow of the waterway."

Bentonite clay is fine particulate slurry used to install pipeline in the tunnelling process being used at the Morice River crossing. 

Turbidity — high levels of sediment suspended in water — can be deadly to fish and their eggs and destructive of habitat.

Conservationist calls for more information on incident

Jesse Stoeppler, co-executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, a member of the Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan Nations and deputy chief of the Hagwilget Village council, worries about the lack of information about what actually happened.

"When it comes to a mega project of this size, there have been a lot of requests from title holders and the public as to why there is next to no regulation on the ground," he said. 

"How is it possible this industry gets away with self-monitoring and self-assessing and self-reporting to these regulators?"

CGL has received dozens of warnings about environmental violations, many related to failures to protect sensitive waterways and wetlands.

When finished, the $11.2-billion CGL pipeline will carry fracked natural gas destined mostly for Asia along a 670-kilometre route to a liquefied natural gas facility and export terminal being built in Kitimat at an estimated cost of close to $20 billion.

With files from Betsy Trumpener and Kate Partridge