More than a year after Coastal GasLink was cited for multiple environmental violations on its pipeline route through northern B.C., the provincial government still hasn’t imposed penalties.
And while Coastal GasLink says it has resolved most of the issues, the most recent report by B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office, posted in December, said that as of October the company had still failed to comply with an order issued a year earlier.
That was based on an inspection that took place a month after the EAO first recommended penalties against Coastal GasLink, followed by a second penalty recommendation in December for continued violations.
The government says a decision on whether the company will face stiff fines for the repeated environmental violations might come later this month.
In a statement, B.C.’s Environment Ministry said the Environmental Assessment Office’s recommendation from October to issue penalties against Coastal GasLink for violating environmental regulations at multiple locations along the 670-kilometre pipeline route is proceeding, but a resolution is unlikely before late January.
“The process is expected to conclude around the end of January, but may take longer if some procedural rights of the process are invoked by the certificate holder,” a ministry spokesperson said in an email to The Tyee.
The pipeline route has been the site of multiple police actions over the past three years as Wet’suwet’en Nation members and supporters who oppose the project, in part due to environmental concerns, have prevented access to worksites on the nation’s territory.
More than 75 people have been arrested under an injunction issued to Coastal GasLink that bars anyone from blocking access to pipeline worksites.
The ministry had initially said in mid-November that a decision on penalties for Coastal GasLink’s environmental infractions, which could run into the millions of dollars, was expected by the end of last year.
So far, the company has been issued multiple cleanup orders under B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Act and has been told to provide evidence it had rectified the issues, which include sediment running into waterways, leaving food waste unsecured and improper storage of hydrocarbons and other contaminants.
Inspections done in October and November 2020 found Coastal GasLink had violated its environmental certificate at multiple locations in the eastern portion of the pipeline route, where sediment- and erosion-control measures like fencing, berms and straw bales were not properly installed or maintained, causing muddy water to flow into fish-bearing streams.
In December 2020, the company was ordered to fix the issues and hire an independent erosion and sediment control auditor to submit biweekly monitoring reports. It was also ordered to pay a $10,000 inspection fee.
But the issues continued, according to a followup report issued in September, which also looked at sites in the western portion of the pipeline route.
Inspectors with B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office reported that in April and May last year they found the company had allowed sediment and contaminants to flow into rivers and streams at several locations between Chetwynd and Smithers.
When inspectors returned for a followup inspection in October, the issues persisted, according to the recent report posted by the EAO on Dec. 6.
The 37-page report said the company had still not fixed all seven issues identified during the inspection, which again involved sediment control, containment of chemical liquids and hazardous waste, waste storage and wildlife attractants. The report details plumes of muddy water entering fish-bearing waterways, overwhelmed water pumps, unsecured food waste and improperly stored hydrocarbons.
On Nov. 16, the ministry issued three additional orders to Coastal GasLink, saying the company had violated the previous December 2020 order and a 2019 order on wildlife attractants.
They came just as heavily armed RCMP officers prepared to enforce an injunction against Wet’suwet’en and supporters who had established a camp known as Coyote Camp, at a pipeline worksite where the company planned to drill under the Morice River, known to the Wet’suwet’en as Wedzin Kwa.
On Nov. 18 and 19, dozens of police officers moved in and arrested at least 30 people under Coastal GasLink’s injunction, re-establishing access to the Morice West Forest Service Road, which had been blocked to industry traffic. It was the third police action of its kind in as many years.
Wet’suwet’en members have said the river is central to their culture and identity. Speaking to The Tyee in September, Molly Wickham, who holds the hereditary name Sleydo’, said, “Everything that’s happened up until now has been about Wedzin Kwa.”
The company has said its plans for micro-tunelling under the Morice River are safe, calling it “one of the most expensive and technically advanced” technologies for river crossings.
Some have questioned why the province has dedicated policing resources to arresting land defenders as Coastal GasLink’s environmental infractions appear to continue unchecked.
“On the one hand, the RCMP have eagerly enforced an injunction on behalf of CGL and this government’s fossil-fuel-expanding agenda,” BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau told the B.C. legislature following the November enforcement.
“At the same time, there have been multiple instances of environmental violations on the CGL pipeline since construction began with little or no enforcement,” she added. “What will the minister do to ensure timely enforcement of these environmental violations?”
Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman responded that the ministry’s staff and inspectors have increased inspections and issued orders under the Environmental Assessment Act.
He said they were “now going through the process of considering the application of administrative penalties.”
According to the Administrative Penalties Regulation, a decision on penalties is in the hands of the Environmental Assessment Office’s chief executive assessment officer, a government employee appointed by cabinet under the Environmental Assessment Act.
In an email, the ministry said the decision-making process is delegated by the chief executive assessment officer to its executive director responsible for compliance and enforcement.
The amount of the penalty can depend on the nature of the contravention, potential adverse effects and whether the contravention was repeated or continuous, according to the regulation.
The ministry told The Tyee in October that administrative penalties of up to $750,000 could be imposed for each day Coastal GasLink remains out of compliance. Court-imposed penalties of up to $1 million for a first conviction and up to $2 million for subsequent convictions are also possible under the act, it added.
But in a recent email, it said that the maximum penalty for failure to comply with an order issued under the Environmental Assessment Act is $100,000.
If penalties are assessed, the statement said, companies have “15 days to indicate if they wish to have an opportunity to respond, at which point they will receive additional time to submit any relevant information to the decision-maker.”
If the proposed penalty is over $25,000, the company may also request an additional review by the chief environmental assessment officer, it added.
In a Nov. 19 response to the EAO, Coastal GasLink outlined the steps it had taken to resolve ongoing compliance issues.
“In the responses the Certificate Holder confirmed that it has implemented erosion and/or sediment control measures required to prevent Project-generated sediment laden water from entering the watercourses and wetlands identified in the Orders,” the EAO said in its December report.
It said that, based on the company’s response, all issues had been resolved apart from a site in the eastern portion of the pipeline route where a road being exclusively used by Coastal GasLink was permitted to another company. Coastal GasLink said it needed permission from the road’s permit holder to resolve the issues, according to the Environmental Assessment Office.
“EAO may inspect to determine if the Coastal GasLink pipeline project has been brought back into compliance with these requirements,” the most recent report concluded. “Continued non-compliance with these requirements may result in additional enforcement under the Environmental Assessment Act.”