Coastal GasLink has been told by the B.C. government to consult further with members of the Wet’suwet’en who will be directly affected by the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their lands in northern B.C.
The province’s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) has given both the company and the Unist’ot’en clan 30 days to hold additional talks before Coastal GasLink resubmits a final report on the area surrounding the Morice River near Houston, B.C.
But the Ministry of Environment says the company is still allowed to engage in pre-construction work already underway at that site while the talks are held.
Coastal GasLink is building a 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to a LNG export facility in Kitimat, B.C., and was awarded an environmental certificate by the EAO in 2014.
That certificate came with conditions, one of which was to collect additional information on the area near the Morice River and how construction would impact the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre nearby.
Among the details on which the company was required to collect information were impacts on wildlife, habitat, water and activities of the Indigenous peoples that use the healing centre.
Two reports were ultimately submitted by Coastal GasLink, which noted that the Unist’ot’en, or Dark House, declined to respond to a majority of the company’s engagement efforts.
According to one of two memos submitted in January 2019 to supplement those reports, the company says it ultimately relied on both media reports and public statements from the Unist’ot’en to inform their reports, as they were unable to have first-hand accounts of their concerns.
In letters sent to both Dark House and Coastal GasLink dated Wednesday, the EAO’s executive project director Bernard Achampong acknowledges the clan made their concerns clear to the EAO in December 2019, which led to the EAO not approving the company’s latest report.
The memos were written by outside companies in response to Dark House’s concerns, which the EAO says brought additional information to light that Dark House should be able to respond to and inform Coastal GasLink directly.
“The EAO is of the view that it would be beneficial for CGL to be provided that additional information so that CGL could also better understand the potential project impacts on the activities associated with the Healing Centre,” Achampong wrote to Dark House spokesperson Freda Huson.
“The development of effective mitigation for protecting the objectives of the Healing Centre is best done with meaningful engagement between Dark House and CGL.”
According to the Unist’ot’en, the healing centre is home to several cultural and spiritual events, along with traditional facilities like a sweat lodge and pit house as well as addiction treatments. It is also surrounded by important cultural sites on the land, which is used for hunting, trapping and fishing.
The healing centre is roughly one kilometre downstream from the point where the pipeline is set to cross the Morice River.
In his letter to Coastal GasLink, Achampong asks the company to “make efforts to engage with Dark House and any applicable Indigenous nation” within the 30-day period, which will be used to update the report.
The company must also include further information on how feedback from Indigenous communities has been responded to and addressed. The EAO will then make a final decision on the report based on the updated information.
Coastal GasLink said Sunday it appreciates the EAO’s “thoughtful approach” and that it will respond to the issues it raised by attempting to engage with Dark House.
“Despite Dark House’s refusal to meet with Coastal GasLink over Condition 1 in December, Coastal GasLink hopes that engagement commences shortly to ensure Dark House concerns are addressed in the 30-day process,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“Coastal GasLink believes that if approval of Condition 1 is secured shortly after the conclusion of the 30 day process, this short delay will not impact our spring construction schedule.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Environment confirmed that work will continue during the 30-day period.
“The EAO has not rejected CGL’s report,” the ministry said.
“They instead are emphasizing the importance of Dark House engaging with CGL to ensure open and constructive dialogue regarding Dark House’s concerns.”
In their own statement, the Unist’ot’en say the EAO’s decision has effectively “denied CGL authorization to proceed with construction” in their area.
Spokesperson Karla Tait also said the province should call for both Coastal GasLink and the RCMP to pull out of Wet’suwet’en territory based on the report’s “shortcomings,” which Dark House says the province should have acted on immediately.
“It is very distressing, after we’ve faced assault rifles and endured arrests at the beckoning of CGL, to now be advised by EAO to work collaboratively with them to address these gaps,” Tait said.
“We urge the province to take this opportunity to respect the rule of law and follow the processes laid out to protect both our rights and the environment.”
Earlier this month, RCMP arrested 28 people at the Unist’ot’en and nearby Gidimt’en camps blocking access to Coastal GasLink workers while enforcing an injunction on behalf of the company.
The arrests sparked widespread protests across Canada, including rail blockades that have crippled Canada’s economy and shuttered commuter rail services in Eastern Canada.
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who claim rights and title over their traditional territory, have refused to grant permission to the pipeline project, which has consent of the elected band councils of all 20 First Nations along the route, including the Wet’suwet’en.
The chiefs say they will not engage in fulsome talks with the federal government to resolve the dispute until RCMP pull out of the area and Coastal GasLink halts their work there.