Judge sends Alton natural gas appeal back to environment minister

The decision by the province's environment minister to dismiss the appeal of a First Nation opposed to the Alton natural gas project has been quashed by a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge.

Court says Aboriginal band denied important information during consultation

Sipekne'katik First Nation appealed the decision to let the Alton natural gas project go ahead. (AltaGas Ltd.)

A Nova Scotia judge has quashed the decision by the province's environment minister to dismiss the appeal of a First Nation opposed to the Alton natural gas project.

The Sipekne'katik First Nation had argued the plan to flush out salt beds to create natural gas storage caverns near Stewiacke, and then pipe the diluted brine into the Shubenacadie River, posed a danger to the tidal waterway and its fish species.

It said it had not been adequately consulted and appealed the January 2016 decision by Environment Minister Margaret Miller to approve the project, which is managed by Alton Natural Gas Storage LP. Miller ultimately rejected that appeal.

In a decision released Monday, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Suzanne Hood found the band was not supplied with reports and documents it needed to mount a proper appeal of the minister's decision.

"As a result, I conclude the decision of the minister should be quashed. It was not procedurally fair in the circumstances of this case," she wrote.

People protested in September against the proposed natural gas storage site located on the Shubenacadie River, near Stewiacke, N.S. (Robert Short/CBC)

In particular, she said, the band was denied a copy of a report by provincial environment project leader Glen Warner that was submitted to Miller. The Warner report, based on information from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, criticized the band's position on lack of consultation as well as its conduct. That report was part of the minister's decision.

"The matter is therefore remitted back to the minister to allow Sipekne'katik an opportunity to respond to the Warner report and the material from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs on which Warner relied," Hood said.

Judge does not order stay

But the judge stopped short of ordering a stay of the minister's approval, which the band had also requested.

"I conclude I do not have the authority to deal with the stay while the matter is subject to appeal to the minister."

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environment said it would need time to review the decision, but that the company can continue operations at this point.

The government has said it believes the project is safe and does not threaten the environment. When it granted the approval last year, the Environment Department said the salinity of the Shubenacadie River had to meet "normal background levels."

Protesters have demonstrated at the Alton site. In September, some blocked the road near Stewiacke, calling for better science and consultation.

Alton Natural Gas Storage is a subsidiary of Calgary-based AltaGas Ltd. Last year it said the storage project would save consumers $17 million annually by maintaining a natural gas supply during winter months when prices typically spike.

Expected in-service date is 2019

In October, the company said it was holding off on creating its underground natural gas storage caverns until some time in 2017. It had planned to start the process, called salt brining, in late 2016. 

In a statement Monday, the company noted the judge did not stay the approval. AltaGas did not offer an updated timeline on immediate work, but said the expected in-service date is 2019.

"​Alton respects the decision of the court and will work constructively with the government of Nova Scotia and Sipekne'katik First Nation to understand next steps," the company said.

"We remain committed to the project and to working closely with members of the Mi'kmaq community regarding environmental protection and community benefits."