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BC Warns Coastal GasLink about Streambank Harm

Construction is done but environmental compliance issues still plague the project.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 10 Jan 2024The Tyee

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

As Coastal GasLink embarks on the final stages of its controversial pipeline project, the company has been issued a letter by B.C.’s environmental regulator warning that some of its cleanup and restoration measures aren’t good enough, and fines could follow.

The letter, which is dated Jan. 2, comes as a result of environmental inspections that took place over three days in November, just as the company announced that the project had reached mechanical completion on Nov. 8, 2023.

According to B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office, the pipeline builder failed to adequately remediate two stream crossings after pipeline construction was completed. In an emailed statement, Coastal GasLink said it is currently reviewing the letter and its findings.

“Immediately following the field inspection in November 2023, we took action to address concerns raised by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office,” it said. “We will continue to work closely with the EAO to understand any additional matters identified in this letter.”

The 670-kilometre gas pipeline project began construction through northern B.C. in 2019 and has faced significant delays and cost overruns, in part due to opposition from Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership. Dozens of people have been arrested on the nation’s traditional territory under a court injunction granted to the Coastal GasLink five years ago that prohibits anyone from blocking pipeline worksites or access roads.

Three people arrested under the injunction stand trial this week in Smithers on charges of criminal contempt of a court order. Another person arrested near the pipeline route was recently acquitted of the same charge.

The company has repeatedly pointed to impact benefit agreements, which it signed with five of six Wet’suwet’en band councils and other First Nations along the pipeline route, as evidence of support for the project.

Coastal GasLink has also faced challenges with ongoing environmental issues along the length of its pipeline route.

The issues were first identified in 2020 and have persisted throughout project construction. Coastal GasLink has been handed five fines, totalling more than $800,000, and issued a dozen stop-work orders for failing to properly implement erosion control measures and prevent the flow of sediment into sensitive waterways.

In October, the EAO said another 11 penalty recommendations against the project remained under consideration, all of them for erosion and sediment control.

In 2022, B.C. signed a compliance agreement with Coastal GasLink that aimed to resolve the issues by requiring that the pipeline company create work execution plans that would be approved by the province before construction could begin. The agreement applied only to sections where construction had not yet started.

An aerial photo with forest on either side and a clear-cut area down the centre.
A photo taken during a Nov. 8 helicopter inspection of the Coastal GasLink pipeline route shows reclamation work completed, in compliance with work execution plans, including berms lined with erosion-control materials and ‘woody debris’ placed along the pipeline route. Photo via BC Environmental Assessment Office.

The Nov. 7 to 9, 2023 inspections were meant to ensure the plans were being properly implemented prior to the winter season, the EAO said in its inspection report. While Wet’suwet’en territory is included in the 400 kilometres of pipeline route inspected late last year, the infractions occurred farther east, north of Prince George.

Field inspections by an EAO senior compliance and enforcement officer found the company out of compliance in two of six areas assessed. While the company had complied with work execution plans to prevent erosion and sedimentation, it had failed to adequately restore streambanks in two areas, a violation of its environmental assessment certificate.

Riparian areas, including riverbank vegetation and fish habitat, must be re-established as part of the backfilling process, according to the EAO’s warning letter.

The inspections found that natural drainage patterns had not been restored at one stream crossing, creating a barrier to fish and water flow. Cobble had been placed “in a manner that limits the channel’s profile” and could impede fish passage, the inspection report said.

“Flow through this area of the channel was observed to be within the spaces between the cobble itself,” it said, which limited the channel’s depth where the stream crossed the pipeline route.

EAO inspectors also identified, at the same crossing and at an additional crossing 13 kilometres to the east, that the pipeline company had not properly installed willows, which are used to re-establish streambank vegetation and fish habitat.

According to the EAO’s warning letter, the maximum penalty for failing to comply with an environmental assessment certificate is $1 million, with a fine of not more than $2 million for each subsequent conviction. The office is continuing to monitor the issue, it said.

In its November construction update, Coastal GasLink said that, while construction is complete, reclamation work continues. This reclamation work will be followed by a five-year post-construction monitoring program to ensure that erosion and sediment-control measures are successful.

“We remain committed to meeting the high standards of environmental protection that British Columbians expect,” the company said in its email to The Tyee, adding that reclamation activities are in different stages along the project route and will continue throughout this year.  [Tyee]

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