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First Nations to debate BC pipeline plans

First Nation groups will band togehter in Hartley Bay later this month to discuss the cumulative impacts posed by pipeline projects that would slice through northern British Columbia.

Office of the Wet’suwet’en natural resources manager David deWit said he hopes to see roughly 40 communities between Fort Chipewyan, near the Alberta oilsands, and Kitimat represented at the meeting.

“We’ve all been dealing in isolation,” deWit said. “But I think there’s a reality of creating this alliance.”

Two pipeline projects are currently proposed for northern B.C.:

The 470-kilometre Pacific Trails Pipeline would carry natural gas from Kitimat to Summit Lake, 50 kilometres north of Prince George. The billion dollar project received its environmental assessment certificate from the province in August and currently awaits a decision on an environmental review by the federal government.

Enbridge’s Northern Gateway twin pipeline is proposed to run from Edmonton to Kitimat, exporting petroleum and importing condensate. The multi-billion-dollar project, which would include a marine terminal in Kitimat, is currently being reviewed by the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

Despite the environmental assessments required by government, the concern, deWit said, is that the pipelines will clear the way for additional development resulting in a higher volume of potentially damaging materials being transported through the territories.

“If this pipeline is approved it’s just the start of all these other pipelines that are going to follow behind,” deWit said. “Once an initial corridor is established we don’t know if the National Energy Board is going to look at the cumulative impacts.”

The corridor would pass through the headwaters of the Morice River, which feeds the Bulkley River before flowing into the Skeena. For the Wet’suwet’en, fears revolve around erosion and ground movement resulting from pipeline construction, which could silt the rivers and damage prime salmon habitat.

Petroleum spills in the traditional hunting, fishing and berry-picking territory are also a concern.

“No one’s looking at what is socially and environmentally sustainable and is there a threshold we’re going to cross where our ecosystems are going to start failing and our fish aren’t coming back,” deWit said. “We’re seeing some indications out there in the territories and it really begs the question of whether we’re doing enough to look at the cumulative impacts of development that is happening and being proposed.”

Environmental concerns vary across the north. At a Keepers of the Water III Conference held in Fort Chipewyan this August, attendees heard about high cancer rates in the area downstream of the oilsands and witnessed a deformed fish bearing two jaws that had been recently pulled from a nearby lake. At the conference, First Nations showed their support for the local Mikisew First Nation by passing a unanimous resolution calling for a moratorium on further oilsands expansion.

Gerald Amos, former chief councillor for the Kitamaat Band Council and director of community relations for the Headwaters Initiative, said he was approached several times about the pipeline projects during the B.C. First Nations Mining Summit, held last week in Prince George.

“Everybody’s anxious about the speed with which Enbridge gearing up,” Amos said. “One of the major points people were making was that all these proposed mining and forestry operations are looked at in isolation of each other.”

Amos notes that oolican, a small fish valued for its rich oil, was a staple food for the north coast First Nations until the 1970s, but had all but disappeared by 2003. He blames bottom trawling and water contamination as two possible culprits in the oolichans’ decline, citing the loss as a reason to start considering cumulative impacts.

“I spend a lot of time in the water. A large part of our diet is still salmon, clams, cockles,” Amos says. “At the moment, those things are being taken away from us, for a number of reasons.”

Amos said he expects at least a handful of northern First Nations to be represented at the meeting, although the date has not yet been fixed.

“Our relationships have been there for generations between communities,” he said. “We’ve had respect of one kind or another between communities, but the nature of the beast has changed drastically with the new economy and the new impacts from oil and gas development. What happens in the tarsands can have an impact in Kitimat and vice versa.”

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