Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline say they fear the company is about to begin drilling under the Morice River, known to Wet’suwet’en as Wedzin Kwa.
The river, and the potential for impacts from pipeline construction, have been central to the conflict that has been unfolding on Wet’suwet’en territory for more than a decade.
“We’ve been trying to protect the river for so many years,” Molly Wickham, a Gidimt’en Clan member whose Wet’suwet’en name is Sleydo’, told The Tyee this week. “It’s just really challenging to wrap your head around it and then to see the images of the drill and what’s going on there.”
According to Wickham, it appears that drilling equipment has been hauled into a worksite about 65 kilometres down the Morice Forest Service Road, southwest of Houston, B.C.
It’s there that TC Energy, the company building the 670-kilometre pipeline through northern B.C., intends to tunnel under the river.
Wickham said that on Sunday overhead photos of the site showed “something actually in the shaft” and all other equipment apparently in place for the work to get underway.
“You can actually see what looks like the drill head inside the shaft,” she said.
The same day, Gidimt’en Checkpoint, a social media account representing a camp established on Gidimt’en Clan territory, tweeted that, “The drill they will use to destroy Wedzin Kwa is now in place.”
“We will never stop defending our yintah the way our ancestors have done for thousands of years. We need all your support now to ensure it will never be functional,” it added.
TC Energy maintains that the drilling method being used, known as micro-tunnelling, is “the safest method to cross the Morice River.”
In an email response to The Tyee, TC Energy said only that it is “in the process of completing trenchless watercourse crossings” at the Morice River and another river north of Prince George.
It did not respond to specific questions about when drilling would begin or if local Indigenous groups would receive prior notification.
“The tunnelling process under the Morice River is anticipated to last until the end of the year,” the company said. “The safety and security of our people, Indigenous and local communities, the public and the protection of the environment remain our primary focuses.”
Preparations at the drill site began more than a year ago, but were interrupted in September 2021 when pipeline opponents used the company’s own equipment to dig trenches through the Marten Forest Service Road, needed to access the site.
They established a camp, known as Coyote Camp, that temporarily prevented pipeline construction.
The drill site was back in the news in February, after Coastal GasLink reported that about 20 masked assailants had entered the area at night, threatening workers and destroying millions of dollars in equipment. RCMP have made no arrests in the incident and no one has claimed responsibility.
Following the November arrests, Coastal GasLink put a gate at the turnoff to the Marten road and established a checkpoint. The company’s security attempted to deny access to journalists in January, citing an injunction granted to the company that prevents anyone from blocking access to the pipeline worksite.
In emails to The Tyee, TC Energy later clarified that attempts to stop media at the gate were out of concern for safety — despite the location being more than two kilometres from any active worksites.
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na’Moks, whose English name is John Ridsdale, regularly visits the territory, walking the almost five-kilometre roundtrip from the gate into the drill site to monitor construction activity. He said two recent trips to the area showed a marked increase in security near the drill site.
“It was all intimidation,” he said about the dozen RCMP officers who pulled over a convoy of vehicles that included several Hereditary Chiefs. “They were trying to keep us away. It’s a clear signal that they’ve got plans and that’s why I had to go back in.”
Na’Moks said he believes the company doesn’t want the Chiefs to see what’s happening at the worksite. “We’re not going anywhere,” he added. “That’s our land. That’s our river. That’s our salmon.”
According to TC Energy, micro-tunnelling is one of the most technically advanced water-crossing technologies available, using “hydraulic jacks and a tunnel boring machine to push concrete casing segments through the soil deep under water bodies.”
It said eight out of 10 “major watercourse crossings” have been completed along the pipeline route, pointing The Tyee to its website, where a recent update said the project is nearing 70-per-cent overall completion.
The company has faced criticism over impacts on watersheds.
B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office has issued several warnings and two fines, totalling almost $250,000, to the company over the past two years for erosion and sediment control issues that allowed silty water and contaminants to flow into sensitive waterways along the pipeline route.
In July, the province announced it had entered into a compliance agreement with Coastal GasLink requiring the company to “follow more proactive measures to control erosion and sedimentation” along the pipeline route in order to protect sensitive wetlands and watercourses.
Fears over damage to watersheds, and specifically to Wedzin Kwa, were first raised by Wet’suwet’en leadership more than a decade ago. The Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which represents the nation’s traditional governance system, first spoke to The Tyee about the concerns in 2008.
The project received its provincial environmental certificate in 2014, despite not being able to access a portion of the pipeline route which crosses Unist’ot’en territory, a house group of the Wet’suwet’en that had gated the Morice road where it crosses Wedzin Kwa.
In December 2018, the B.C. Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction that barred anyone from blocking access to pipeline worksites or access roads.
Members of the Gidimt’en Clan, whose territory borders Unist’ot’en territory, responded by establishing Gidimt’en Camp 44 kilometres down the Morice road, about 20 kilometres before the gate at Wedzin Kwa.
In January 2019, Gidimt’en Camp became the site of the first of several police actions involving the pipeline when RCMP officers arrested 14 people on a bridge near the camp.
Arrests occurred again in February 2020 and last November, with dozens of people arrested in total under an injunction Coastal GasLink had obtained barring any interference with pipeline work.
Wickham, who lives near the pipeline route, is among those facing criminal charges. She said it’s made travelling on the territory or undertaking cultural activities, which are allowed under the conditions of her release, difficult as she’s constantly surveilled by police and pipeline security.
“Everything that I do on the territory is a cultural activity. I’m hunting, I’m picking berries, I’m making medicines or monitoring things — those are all my cultural activities,” Wickham said. “They’re not the culture police. If they try to be, I’d like to see that fight happen.”
While she said police are no longer doing sweeps through Gidimt’en Camp, something that began after February’s attack on the drill site, Coastal GasLink security continues round-the-clock surveillance of the camp.
Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, which hasn’t actively interfered with pipeline activities since arrests in February 2020, also said in recent social media posts that residents are under constant surveillance by RCMP and Coastal GasLink security.
“They record everything we do,” the post said. “They recorded our elders and children changing out of their rafting gear & swimsuits after a cultural trip down the river. They follow us when we harvest & hunt. They record every visitor. We can’t sit at our own Widzin Kwa without being watched by strange men with binoculars.”
The healing centre, which provides cultural programming for Indigenous people, lies about a kilometre north of the drill site.
Wickham said she and other pipeline opponents are frequently pulled over and ticketed by RCMP officers who patrol the Morice road. Some are arrested and charged with mischief, she added.
During one recent arrest, a vehicle was searched and a drone used to monitor pipeline activity was confiscated, she said. RCMP did not respond to The Tyee’s questions about the incident.
“It’s been a challenge to actually be able to monitor what is happening,” Wickham said. “They’ve provided us no information. They provided us less information about the drilling process than what they have on their website.
Coastal GasLink received a warning last year from the province over its failure to allow access to Wickham, who was attempting to visit the drill site as a cultural monitor for the nation. The environmental regulator said the company’s reasons — which included COVID-19 protocols, worksite safety and its injunction — did not apply.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said in an email to The Tyee that the project is not currently out of compliance with regard to its work at the drill site.
“The Environmental Assessment Office requires Coastal Gaslink to provide construction schedules to affected Indigenous nations,” the spokesperson said. “The EAO Compliance & Enforcement has assessed CGL’s process surrounding the Morice River portion of the project and has found them in compliance.”