Alton natural gas storage facility dispute puts RCMP in the middle

The RCMP says it is staying "neutral" as AltaGas Ltd. and Mi'kmaq protesters are at odds over Aboriginal presence on a tiny island near the energy company's proposed underground natural gas storage caverns in Nova Scotia.

AltaGas Ltd. and Mi'kmaq protesters at odds over Aboriginal presence on island near proposed gas caverns

Mi'kmaq and local residents remain concerned that increasing salinity in the river poses a risk to some fish species. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

The RCMP says it is staying "neutral" as AltaGas Ltd. and Mi'kmaq protesters are at odds over Aboriginal presence on a tiny island near the energy company's proposed underground natural gas storage caverns in Nova Scotia.

Opponents of the Alton storage project briefly went out Sunday to the small island that formed where the tidal Shubenacadie River meets a channel in which briny water is to be discharged.

Lori Maclean, speaking for AltaGas, said the company called police because the protesters entered an active work site with construction hazards. The site is restricted for safety.

Protesters say they were exercising their treaty rights.

Not definitive about future action

The Mounties said they've been contacted by the company and are aware of the incident that drew police cruisers to the scene, but the police force was not being definitive about what officers will do if similar incidents continue.

"The RCMP position on people entering the area behind the construction zone is … we are committed to remaining neutral on all matters. With this, our role in such matters is to keep the peace and to protect property," said RCMP spokesman Cpl. Dal Hutchinson in a telephone interview.

Cheryl Maloney, the president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, said she was confident the Mi'kmaq have a right to be on the island for fishing purposes granted by treaty.

6 or 7 police cruisers

"We moved over to the island, but they [company security guards] couldn't reach us because there was a channel in between," she said.

The police were called to the site by Alton representatives and a number of RCMP cruisers waited near the scene, as a group of private security workers observed an encampment created by Mi'kmaq and other opponents of the storage project, which was approved earlier this year by the province.

Hutchinson said six or seven RCMP cruisers were at the scene on Sunday.

'Exercising our Aboriginal treaty rights'

Maloney says she expects to hear from Alton about the incident, but doesn't believe the Mi'kmaq protesters broke any laws.

"I think the police were a little hesitant to arrest us for exercising our Aboriginal treaty rights," she said. As she spoke, the tentpoles and the Mi'kmaq flags were still flying at the site of the tiny island along the banks of the tidal river.

"Let them explain that to the courts if they feel we don't have the right to be there. We do have the right to be there. We will be there," she said.

The company says it respects the right of individuals to express their views, but adds the project has been approved by the Environment Department, and access to the work site is restricted for safety reasons.

AltaGas says it continues to engage with stakeholders

Maclean confirmed that law enforcement agencies were contacted on Monday about the Mi'kmaq presence on the island.

"We will continue to engage with the government, the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia, local residents and other stakeholders to answer questions about Alton and to address concerns. 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," she wrote.

The company notes the project has received all needed environmental and industrial approvals for the storage project, following over eight years of scientific monitoring of the tidal river.

"Brining is the process to be used at Alton to dissolve an underground salt formation and create the natural gas storage caverns. The water used to dissolve the salt will come from the tidal Shubenacadie River. The brine created by this process, a mixture of tidal water and the dissolved salt, will be released back into the river at a salinity level within the range of normal salinity for the river," Maclean wrote.

'We're not budging,' say protesters

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

The group has erected signs at the site declaring it is a conservation zone operated by the Sipekne'katik district of the Mi'kmaq people.

She said she and other volunteers plan to create a weir this week to catch fish and create some baseline data so that the Mi'kmaq can carry out their own scientific research to see what impact the project could have.

Maloney also said the Mi'kmaq protesters aren't looking for confrontation, but are prepared to exercise Aboriginal rights to use the river.

"We're not budging. If Canada … doesn't want to protect and defend us, we're still going to stay here," she said.

Maclean said construction is ongoing at Alton and a date for the start of brining has not been finalized. She notes that a court decision released in July affirms brining can take place.