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Does Kitimat's Vote on Northern Gateway Matter?

While Enbridge rallies support for today's non-binding pipeline plebiscite, critics say risks stretch far beyond the coastal town.

By Dan Mesec 12 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Dan Mesec is a freelance reporter based in the Bulkley Valley.

As Kitimat residents prepare to vote whether to support or oppose the Northern Gateway project, questions remain about the value of the non-binding plebiscite.

More than 900 ballots have already been cast in advanced polls -- double the amount from the community's most recent municipal election. General voting begins at 8 a.m. today.

Community officials expect a record turnout, a clear indication of the importance this vote holds within the community.

However, with dozens of other northern communities opposing the project, the outcome will not sway efforts to reject Northern Gateway.

'The big one'

"People throughout our region feel passionately about this issue -- it's the big one," said Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach, whose council voted to oppose Northern Gateway more than a year ago.

"The risks aren't just in Kitimat; they're all along the route. I don't think the outcome will change the feeling in other communities."

Last week Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Ellis Ross wrote an open letter criticizing the plebiscite as too little, too late.

"The District of Kitimat will seek the views of its residents on Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline project. But to what end? If anything, it will lead to further uncertainty," wrote Chief Ross.

"Deciding to hold a referendum at this late date is a slap in the face to all the work done by the Haisla Nation on this project. The Haisla Nation dedicated time and money toward testing Northern Gateway's evidence and claims about safety and environmental protection, while the district stood by and did nothing."

Kitimat councillor Phil Germuth, who also runs his own mechanic service business, says he's heard arguments for and against the project. "I have customers and constituency members that are in favour of it and some who are against it," Germuth said.

"If I had to take a guess I would say there is a larger percentage not in favour. But until the actual count comes out, I don't have any numbers myself."

Booming industry

Strengthening the local economy is often cited as a reason to support the project, but Germuth noted Kitimat is already experiencing an industrial boom. Activities by Rio Tinto Alcan and various liquefied natural gas projects are already slated for the near future.

"People are also asking, 'If we have all this economic opportunity, why would we take the risk with the Enbridge project?'" he said.

Enbridge has ramped up its Vote Yes to Kitimat campaign in the past three weeks. Two more open houses fielded questions from the public with company information regarding jobs, training programs and spill response.

Although Enbridge hasn't received a clear indication of whether social license will be achieved for the project, it is clearly trying hard to win the hearts and minds of residents in Kitimat.

"Regardless of the outcome, our commitment to Kitimat isn't changing," said Enbridge spokesperson Ivan Giesbrecht.

"We've met a lot of new supporters here in Kitimat, we've been able to do a good job of providing people with the information that they're are asking for. It's our responsibility to do that and it's one we take seriously."  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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