The province’s Environmental Assessment Office has granted Coastal GasLink permission to begin pipeline construction near the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, the scene of a standoff and arrests in February.
On Thursday, the office issued seven letters confirming its approval of an impact assessment report submitted July 17 by the pipeline company. Coastal GasLink can now begin work on its natural gas pipeline in the Morice River Technical Boundary Area south of Smithers, B.C.
Completion and approval of the 324-page report was a condition of the company’s environmental assessment certificate, initially granted in 2014.
Until 2019 the company was unable to access terrain near the healing centre to do impact assessments, because the Wet’suwet’en house group had gated the Morice River bridge at its territorial boundary. Coastal GasLink submitted an initial report in November, and the Environmental Assessment Office requested additional information in February.
The letters issued Thursday were addressed to Coastal GasLink, four Wet’suwet’en band councils and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which represents the nation’s hereditary chiefs.
By far the longest, at 11 pages, was the letter to Unist’ot’en Hereditary Chief Knedebeas, whose English name is Warner William.
In it, Nathan Braun, acting assistant deputy minister for the Environmental Assessment Office, acknowledges the house group’s lack of consent to the project and recent willingness to engage in dialogue to mitigate impacts to the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, located a kilometre from the pipeline route.
Representatives for Coastal GasLink and the Unist’ot’en could not be reached for comment by deadline. However, the Wet’suwet’en house group posted on its website Tuesday that activities continue at the healing centre, including a summer work camp later this month.
Resistance to pipelines through Wet’suwet’en territory began at the healing centre in 2010, before the Coastal GasLink project was proposed, as Unist’ot’en members began re-occupying the territory and conducting culture camps.
Healing centre director Freda Huson (Howilhkat) was among seven people arrested on Feb. 10 as RCMP enforced an injunction and cleared Indigenous camps along the Morice forestry road. Huson says the centre’s location next to the Morice River was chosen for its clean water, abundant wildlife and cultural significance. A three-storey healing centre has since been constructed.
The healing centre is also located on the road leading to Coastal GasLink’s 9A Lodge work camp, and an influx of workers has raised concerns about the connection between work camps and missing and murdered Indigenous women.
That was one of the issues raised by Wet’suwet’en members and supporters who blocked access until the RCMP moved in February to enforce a Dec. 31 B.C. Supreme Court injunction that granted Coastal GasLink access to the pipeline route. Twenty-eight people were arrested.
Less than two weeks after the RCMP arrests at Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, and while blockades supporting the Wet’suwet’en were still in place across the country, the province gave the company 30 days to consult with the Unist’ot’en on its impact report.
According to the letter addressed to Chief Knedebeas, the Environmental Assessment Office, the Unist’ot’en house group and Coastal GasLink met regularly throughout the spring.
“CGL agreed to take additional time to support the steps identified by Dark House [Unist’ot’en] and Dark House agreed to inform CGL’s updated [report] even though they objected to the CGL Project occurring within their territory,” the letter reads.
It says that further impacts and mitigation will be identified by the pipeline company and Unist’ot’en during a second phase of the discussions, which are to be completed by September. That’s when clearing and grading of the pipeline route are expected to begin through the area.
“The EAO understands that CGL has committed to developing a communications protocol with Dark House that would include mutually-agreeable approaches for the timely sharing of information regarding activities of each party, with the goal of minimizing or avoiding to the extent possible impacts to Dark House’s use of their territory,” it reads.
The letter also appears to address recent environmental infractions by Coastal GasLink in its work around endangered whitebark pine and protected wetlands.
The letter says the assessment office “acknowledges the ongoing concerns with respect to compliance of CGL with the requirements” of environmental plans. It adds the office “remains committed to continuing to undertake active compliance and appropriate enforcement.”
There has been a continuing police presence on the Morice West Forest Service Road since RCMP enforcement of an earlier injunction on Jan. 7, 2019.
In June, security cameras captured images of heavily armed RCMP officers approaching a smokehouse located on Gidimt’en territory on the path of the pipeline and within the Morice River Technical Boundary Area.
The smokehouse, which is about one kilometre from the forestry road and will soon be used to process fish, was built this spring at the request of Gidimt’en Clan Hereditary Chief Woos. RCMP say the officers were there as part of routine patrols on the remote forestry road.
In recent weeks Skeena MLA Ellis Ross has pressed B.C.’s NDP government on its role in initiating February’s police action on the Morice and whether the government would intervene to remove the smokehouse by redeploying RCMP and covering costs under the provincial police service agreement.
Most recently, Ross addressed questions to Solicitor General Mike Farnworth in the legislature.
“The protest hasn’t stopped, the blockading hasn’t stopped, and the fundraising to actually help with the protests hasn’t stopped,” Ross asked last week. “So, in terms of the solicitor general’s budget and upcoming plans, can we get a ballpark figure on what it will cost to redeploy the RCMP again and what that cost will entail?”
Farnworth replied that enforcement decisions are up to the RCMP, but that costs incurred would be paid by the province. For the fiscal year ending March 31, he said, enforcement of Coastal GasLink’s injunction has cost the province $5.3 million.
In a construction update posted to Coastal GasLink’s website Thursday, the company says it has begun installing pipe at either end of the 670-kilometre pipeline route, in Kitimat and Groundbirch.
The pipeline is being constructed to carry gas from northeast B.C. to an LNG plant at Kitimat that is currently under construction.