Alton gas protesters block AltaGas from work site near Stewiacke

About 20 protesters have blocked the road to the Alton Natural Gas Storage work site near Stewiacke, N.S., calling for better science and consultation.

Company stands by its science, says it remains open to dialogue with First Nations leaders

People protesting the proposed AltaGas salt caverns have placed a flag and 10 treaty-based fishing traps near the company's work site at the Shubenacadie River. (Robert Short/CBC)

About 20 protesters have blocked the road to the Alton Natural Gas Storage work site near Stewiacke, N.S., calling for better science and consultation. 

Cheryl Maloney, who has led the effort, resigned as a band councillor Monday from the Sipekne'katik band, hoping it would deflect legal threats against the band. As a private citizen she can assert treaty rights without the same legal threat, she said.

Cheryl Maloney, who has led the protest, resigned as a Sipekne'katik band councillor on Monday, hoping it would deflect legal threats. (Robert Short/CBC)

The group has placed 10 treaty-based fishing traps in the water near the AltaGas Ltd. work site. The Calgary-based company wants to hollow out salt caverns to store natural gas in Fort Ellis, and they have proposed that the salt brine be released into the Shubenacadie River. The company has received environmental permits to perform the work, but protesters challenge the amount of consultation and the science on which those permits are based.

Cold winds howled across the area as protesters spread cedar leaves along the line dividing them and four security guards.

Maloney said the company told the band it would sue if the traps aren't removed.

"We're just going to sit and defend the treaty fishing traps in the river," she said.

Cold winds howled across the area as protesters spread cedar leaves along the line dividing them and four security guards. (Robert Short/CBC)

The 10 eel traps were placed in protest as a nod to previous court victories for Indigenous people regarding fishing, in particular the case of Donald Marshall Jr.

Marshall served 11 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. An inquiry led to changes in the justice system.

Later, Marshall's arrest for fishing eels led to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, known as the Marshall decision, that confirmed Aboriginal people have the right to fish for a moderate living.

Negotiating 'our rights away'

"So here we are, fishing eels in the Shubenacadie River according to the treaty of 1752, and Alton wants us to negotiate our rights away," said Maloney.

She said the protesters want the company to stop work until a court appeal of the environmental permits is complete.

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

They also want to hear from Premier Stephen McNeil about the group's concerns regarding what they call a failure in consultation.

In an email to CBC News Monday, the premier said he was confident the Crown met its obligation to consult with the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia and others on this project, though he acknowledged that some might disagree.

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

About 20 people protested the proposed natural gas storage site located northeast of Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

Maloney has said Mi'kmaq and local residents are concerned that increasing salinity in the river poses a risk to some fish species.

In the meantime, the group is preparing to do its own scientific monitoring next week in conjunction with supportive agencies such as the Ecology Action Centre and Mi'kmaw Conservation Group. Maloney said streams and rivers aren't adequately protected in Canada. At a time when the province is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years, Maloney said the plan to use so much water for the brining process seems counterproductive to climate change concerns.

Law enforcement contacted

A spokeswoman for Alton said company officials are monitoring the situation and the first priority is the safety of everyone at the site.

"We respect the right of individuals to express their views in a safe manner, however Alton is an active construction site," Lori MacLean said in an email.

MacLean said law enforcement had been contacted about the situation. While she didn't directly comment on threats of legal action regarding the eel traps, MacLean said they "remain in dialogue with law enforcement representatives" regarding "the activities by some individuals at the site."

Alton stands by the science

MacLean said the company has followed all the proper channels to get its permits, and the work has included river monitoring by representatives from Dalhousie University and a Mi'kmaq-led independent third party science review in 2015. (The Sipekne'katik Band has questioned that work.)

"Since 2006, Alton has been meeting with stakeholders including landowners, community members, government and the Mi'kmaq to share information and exchange viewpoints in a respectful manner. We will continue to engage with the Government of Nova Scotia, the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia, local residents and other stakeholders to answer questions about Alton and address concerns.

"Alton values the participation of the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia in environmental monitoring of the project and engagement on project benefits. The company continues to remain proactive and open in inviting Mi'kmaq leaders to have more dialogue with the company in these areas."

MacLean said a date hasn't been set yet for when the brining will begin because construction isn't complete.