British Columbia

A pipeline runs through it: Coastal GasLink is crossing hundreds of waterways in northern B.C.

A major B.C. pipeline will cross about 625 streams, creeks, rivers and lakes, many of them fish bearing, during construction of one of the largest private sector projects in Canadian history, according to the company building it.

Environmental violations on waterways flagged during pipeline construction

Coastal GasLink says the pipeline's trenchless water crossing on the Kitimat River was constructed by installing pipe directly under the waterway. (Submitted by Coastal GasLink)

A major B.C. pipeline will cross about 625 streams, creeks, rivers and lakes, many of them fish bearing, during construction of one of the largest private sector projects in Canadian history, according to the company building it.

The $6.6-billion pipeline is designed to carry natural gas, obtained by hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — in northeastern B.C., to a $40-billion LNG terminal on the province's North Coast for export to Asia.

Coastal GasLink  says its environmental experts have devoted 43,000 hours to lessening the impact on fish and aquatic habitat along the route.

Still,  B.C. officials — and Coastal GasLink itself — have already flagged environmental violations.

The 670 kilometre pipeline route through northern B.C. crosses vital habitat for salmon and other fish, including the  blue-listed bull trout. Blue-listed species include any indigenous species or subspecies considered to be vulnerable in their locale. 

Coastal GasLink's gas pipeline crosses about 625 rivers, creeks, waters, streams and lakes on its 670 kilometre route across northern B.C. (CBC News)

Construction is scheduled across tributaries of major watersheds, including the Fraser, the Skeena, and the Peace. 

First Nations raised concerns in an Aboriginal consultation report about the project's adverse effects on fisheries and diminishing salmon populations, as early as 2013.

The company says crews are monitoring the pipeline's impact on waterways and fish habitat. (Submitted by Coastal GasLink)

Coastal GasLink's technical reports acknowledge that construction activities like blasting and riprap armouring could be "high risk" to fish habitat. 

That's because sediment and turbid water from waterway construction has the potential to reduce the biological productivity of aquatic systems and suffocate fish eggs.

The company said it's "committed to achieving the highest standards of environmental protection during construction." 

Environmental violations

But provincial officials have flagged two environmental violations, one of which affected 68 wetlands along the pipeline route.

The second violation resulted in turbid water flowing into Fraser Lake. 

In addition, late last month, Coastal GasLink's own Annual Compliance Self Report stated the company had "water quality monitoring non conformances and non-compliances in 2020 ... with potential adverse effects." 

Coastal GasLink installs pipe along its 670 kilometre route from northeastern B.C.'s gas fields to an LNG export terminal in Kitimat, B.C. (Coastal GasLink)

"We thought that they would be really on top of trying to control the sediment at the local streams," said Greg Knox, executive director of the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust in Terrace, close to the pipeline route. 

Knox says the pipeline has the greatest potential to harm waterways during the construction phase, when sediment can enter rivers and streams.

"But this company, in its short time constructing this pipeline, has been ... causing problems for the local environment," Knox said. "It really makes us concerned that they're not following through on their commitments to protect the local environment and local fish."

Stop work order issued

In 2020, inspectors with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) determined that Coastal GasLink failed to properly survey 68 different wetlands before construction started.

Coastal GasLink says trenchless crossings like this one involve the installation of pipe beneath the water. (Coastal GasLink )

The EAO issued a stop work order until the company completed the required work.

In an email to CBC News, Coastal GasLink said it takes the B.C. EAO's findings "very seriously."

The company said its wetlands' assessments used a method different than what was required and failed to meet the EAO's timeline.

In a second incident, provincial inspectors flagged the improper discharge of "turbid water" that later flowed into fish bearing Fraser Lake.

The B.C. EAO issued an enforcement order, stating discharge the company pumped from sediment ponds was a violation of Coastal GasLink's environmental assessment certificate and that "water quality monitoring had not taken place."

Decisive action taken, company says

Coastal GasLink told CBC News it has since taken "decisive action" to improve sediment control before the spring thaw.

"We have retained Independent Erosion and Sediment Control Auditors ... to achieve compliance," it said.

The company points to successes, like the creation of a temporary bridge across the Stuart River that was built before salmon spawning season and will be removed once the pipeline construction is complete.

Coastal GasLink says the this temporary bridge across the Stuart River was built before salmon spawning season and will be removed after construction to minimize disturbances on the river. (Coastal GasLink/Contributed )

The Stuart is part of the most northerly watershed of the Fraser Basin and a key area for the sockeye salmon run.

Coastal GasLink says it worked with the local First Nation to minimize disturbance on the river by constructing a single free span arch, instead of multiple arches.

"Protecting our environment is a fundamental value ... we are working hard with our prime contractors to live up to," Coastal GasLink wrote in an email.

The Canadian Freshwater Alliance said local communities need a bigger say in what happens with their waterways.

"Water is the life blood of B.C.," said Danielle Paydli, B.C. organizer with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance. "Water is our security."

"It may be that employment and pipeline work is prioritized in that community, or it might be that employment ... in fishing or other jobs that use water are prioritized by those communities. It's not for industry to decide," said Paydli.

About 4,000 people worked on the pipeline project in 2020, according to Coastal GasLink.

The company said its pipeline construction was about 25 per cent complete in January.


Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.