Nova Scotia

Sipekne'katik band prepared for long protest at AltaGas site

A dozen Sipekne'katik band members and local residents who live near the controversial AltaGas natural gas storage site have begun a sit-in. And they say they're prepared for a long stay.

'We've started to allow big business to dictate how our environment is going to be,' resident says

Band member Cheryl Maloney says the sit-in won't end until the work stops and a court appeal of the environmental permits is completed. (Robert Short/CBC)

Indigenous people and other residents near Stewiacke, N.S., aren't backing down in their opposition to a Calgary company's plans for a natural gas storage site in the area.

About a dozen people including Sipekne'katik band members began a sit-in Monday in the area where AltaGas plans to store natural gas in three underground salt caverns near the Shubenacadie River.

They say it's going to be a lengthy one.

"I think we've started to allow big business to dictate how our environment is going to be," said Paula MacMillan, who lives near the site and joined the sit-in Wednesday.

"You have to get out there and make your voice heard because if you don't it's not going to change. You have to let the government and big business know that you don't want this."

'No risk with this project'

The group wants more consultation and "better science" concerning the Shubenacadie River's use during the process of creating caverns for natural gas storage.

The company insists the science is sound.

"With the amount of data we have and the studies that have been done, we're confident that there is no risk with this project," said Chuck Lyons, AltaGas vice-president of environment, health and safety.

AltaGas has drilled three holes deep into the ground to hollow out the salt caverns, and the company will soon be moving two of those wells to the next stage.
A rig drills holes for pipes that will carry water from the Shubenacadie River 12 kilometres away to salt caverns. Another set of pipes will carry the salty wastewater back to the same river to be flushed away with the powerful current. (CBC)

That involves a process known as salt brining — creating a cavern in a salt formation underground.

"We'll take water from the tidal estuary and pump it into the cavern and down into the well where the salt will be dissolved by the water," Lyons said. "The water will be brought back up out of the well and returned to the river."

Brining process ready to start

The process creates large caverns where AltaGas plans to store surplus natural gas from the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline, located 10.8 kilometres away.

AltaGas says they are close to starting the brining process, but it will take 24 to 36 months before it's complete and the caverns are ready to store natural gas. The capacity to start will be 4.5 billion cubic feet of gas.

It's the release of the brine into the Shubenacadie that concerns the protesters.

They're worried the water released after the brining process will damage the tidal estuary's fragile ecosystem. And they're skeptical of the company's assurances that the water will be safe for the environment.
Members of the Sipekne'katik band have placed a flag and 10 treaty-based fishing traps near the AltaGas Ltd. work site on the Shubenacadie River. (Robert Short/CBC)

The river experiences a range of salt concentrations because it rises and falls twice a day with the tides of the Bay of Fundy, the highest tides in the world.

AltaGas says the salinity levels in the river will be monitored by provincial and federal environment departments as well as the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Eel traps used to bolster protest

Band member Cheryl Maloney — who resigned as a band councillor this week, hoping to deflect legal threats against the band — said the sit-in won't end until the work stops and a court appeal of the environmental permits is completed. She said there's been a delay in the court proceeding.

"By them just moving ahead, because of a court delay, is wrong," she said.

The band has placed 10 eel traps into the river as part of its protest. The traps are a nod to previous court victories for Indigenous people regarding fishing, in particular the 1993 case of Donald Marshall Jr.

Marshall was arrested for fishing eels, which led to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, known as the Marshall decision, that confirmed Indigenous people have the right to fish for a moderate living.

Protesters are worried the creation of underground storage caverns will destroy the tidal ecosystem of nearby Shubenacadie River. (Robert Short/CBC)

Protesters prepared to stay

The group is preparing for a lengthy sit-in. A shack has been built for shelter with a wood stove inside.

"Stephen Harper removed all protection for rivers and lakes in this country and now we've elected a new government, and we've sat back and waited for protections and they're not coming," said Maloney.

"So we Nova Scotians and Mi'kmaq are joining forces and are standing up, standing up to defend."

The gas project didn't happen overnight.

Planning began nearly a decade ago and wells were drilled over the last two years.

Premier satisfied with review process

"I am confident that the Crown has met its obligation to consult with the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia and others on this project," Premier Stephen McNeil said in a statement Monday.

"Nova Scotians should be aware that this project only received approval after years of consultation and environmental review."

Underground natural gas storage has long been used in Canada, dating back to 1915. Salt caverns, in particular, have been used to store natural gas for more than 50 years, but never in Nova Scotia.

"The signal is: They are here to stay once they start brining and we don't want that to happen," MacMillan said.