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Alton Gas fortifies fences following removal of Mi’kmaw grandmothers

WATCH: Less than 24 hours after the arrest and removal of three Mi'kmaw grandmothers from its site, Alton Gas is fortifying fences around the property. But as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, that's not stopping the women from keeping an eye on the company's movements.

Fewer than 24 hours after the removal of three Mi’kmaw grandmothers from its project site, Alton Gas is fortifying fences around the property in Fort Ellis, N.S.

Kukuwis Wowkis, Kiju Muin and Darlene Gilbert were arrested on April 10 for civil contempt of an injunction order, and released without charge that afternoon from the RCMP office in nearby Enfield.

Alton Gas has now hired security guards to keep watch over the site around the clock, and in an emailed statement, said it hopes Nova Scotia Power crews can be sent in soon to begin repair work.

“There is work taking place to safely open the access road, as well as work on fencing around the site,” wrote spokeswoman Lori Maclean on Thursday. “A site safety assessment is taking place to determine next steps for remediation.”

READ MORE: N.S. RCMP arrest 3 ‘grassroots grandmothers’ at Alton Gas site

A few RCMP officers remained on scene, but their presence did not deter Mi’kmaw women from returning to the site to observe the company’s actions. On the banks of the Shubenacadie River, is a treaty-protected truck house with a few small beds and a fireplace.

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“We’re here and we’ll remain here,” Wowkis, one of the women who was arrested, told Global News.

“They can’t get rid of us. There’s no way they can get rid of us. We will defend our Mother Earth because it’s in our DNA to defend her.”

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Wowkis, her Mi’kmaw sisters and their allies have long opposed Alton’s plan to store natural gas in underground caverns by the Shubenacadie River, releasing tens of thousands of tonnes of brine into its waters in the process.

While they fear the work will do irreparable harm to the ecosystem and its spawning fish, the company says adequate measures are in place to protect the land and water, and it has an environmental stamp of approval from the Nova Scotia government.

“Environmental studies have shown that the slight increase in salinity is insignificant in terms of the natural fluctuation of salinity, which the river’s biological community is subject to on each turn of the tidal cycle,” wrote Maclean, quoting from the company website.

“The amount of actual salt released into the Shubenacadie River will represent only 0.095% of the total salt in the river – a small fraction of its total salt concentration.”

Alton Gas sought the injunction to remove protesters from its site in order to access its equipment and infrastructure safely.

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As it stands, the company is waiting for new regulations under the federal Fisheries Act that will control the brining process, before it can begin the bulk of its construction.

Sipekne’katik human rights activist Cheryl Maloney said she’s deeply concerned –- especially in an election year -– that the federal government is creating new regulation to accommodate Alton Gas’s project.

“I think that Nova Scotians need to come out … we need people that are willing to stand up and run based on integrity and not on the normal party lines of being lobbied by industry,” she said at the truck house.

“And that’s the sad reality in this country: that industry has more power than the citizens that live here.”

WATCH: RCMP arrest 3 ‘grassroots grandmothers’ as officers enforce injunction at Alton Gas site (April 10, 2019)

RCMP arrest 3 ‘grassroots grandmothers’ as officers enforce injunction at Alton Gas site
RCMP arrest 3 ‘grassroots grandmothers’ as officers enforce injunction at Alton Gas site

Nova Scotia Environment Minister Margaret Miller said she wasn’t sure how soon the federal government would complete its regulatory process, but stands by her own government’s decision to approve the project.

“The terms and conditions of their industrial approval mean they have to abide by all the laws and regulations and material that we’ve received so far,” she said.

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“So I’m confident in the industrial approval as it stands, that there will be safeguards there to make sure that there’s not too much brine put into the river.”

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Maloney said both the federal and provincial government are gambling with Nova Scotia’s ecosystem.

“I’m really, really concerned about our politicians and their ability to make laws according to whatever science they want to use,” she explained. “Nova Scotians need to know that we have been used as guinea pigs, I guess.”

Wowkis and Muin agreed, and said their resistance to the project will protect the land and water for seven generations to come. They’re not sure they’re going to use the space Alton Gas set aside for peaceful protest.

They say the fences that surround it remind them of internment camps, and their supporters have covered them in red dresses -– a tribute to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Maclean of Alton Gas said the fences were set up quickly to comply with court orders, and the company is open to discussion about them.