News Articles Featured | PETER JAMES | Prince George Citizen | November 27, 2012
With the Prince George phase of the National Energy Board hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway project drawing to a close, Joy Thorkelson said there are still big holes in the evidence that need to be addressed.
The representative from the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union questioned witnesses from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on Tuesday at the Columbus Community Centre, but was disappointed she was limited to asking questions about what is on the record, rather than what's missing in government's response to Enbridge's application to build a pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to Kitimat.
"It's a real Catch-22, because they have evidence, they say their evidence comes to a certain conclusion but they've left many, many things out of their report and they've given a positive go-ahead to Enbridge," Thorkelson said after concluding her questioning of the first federal government witness panel.
Among the issues Thorkelson said need to be addressed are the socio-economic impacts on the commercial fishery dealing with freshwater species and an investigation into the impact on spawning grounds if chemical additives from the project leak into salmon-bearing rivers or streams.
"If there's oil spilled, will those salmon ever return to that creek to spawn again?" Thorkelson asked. "Nobody's responsible for answering that question. Enbridge isn't going to answer that question, the department of fisheries isn't going to answer that question, [Environment Canada] isn't going to answer that question."
Thorkelson said there could be dire consequences if that issue isn't addressed and a spill were to occur.
"If these fish don't go back to spawn, what are they going to do?" she said. "Many of them will only spawn in their natal streams, so they'll just die and go away."
Northern Gateway spokesman Paul Stanway said the company will provide more information on freshwater fisheries as the environmental review progresses.
"I think it's worth bearing in mind until we get to the end of this process we don't have a confirmed route yet," Stanway said. "So it would be pointless to do a lot of the detailed work on freshwater watercourses until we actually know what the route of the pipeline is going to be."
Thorkelson repeatedly asked the DFO witnesses what role spill risk analysis played into the report they filed to the Joint Review Panel but was told by witness Michael Engelsjord that the department believes the risk of a spill is low.
The primary focus of the DFO's report was any potential risk to fish habitat due to the construction or routine of the pipeline. For instance, the government recommended Northern Gateway use trenchless methods to cross sensitive streams and rivers and is confident the company will do so based on its recent filings.
DFO does have a mechanism in place to force companies to provide a financial guarantee that they will be able to replace any damaged habitat, but that only applies to situations where the department grants a permit for a potentially destructive activity and would not be applicable if there was a spill.
"DFO would not be giving any authorization for an accident such as a spill," Engelsjord said. "A spill would be an unfortunate accident that would potentially be, under a few sections of the fisheries act, illegal."
Rules governing questioning of government witnesses restricted some of the questions Thorkelson hoped to ask about how the government's policy was reflected in the evidence it filed to the JRP. Government lawyer Jim Shaw and JRP chairwoman Sheila Leggett had to remind Thorkelson a few times she was only allowed to ask questions about the specific evidence the government filed.
At one point Shaw said the witnesses had been very patient about answering questions far afield from the evidence "sometimes with great difficulty and with great struggle."
Thorkelson was also disappointed that only "junior staff" were on hand to answer her questions. She felt that since DFO's evidence was reviewed by the regional director general prior to submission that more high-ranking bureaucrats should have been on the witness panel.
"This is probably one of the biggest potential impacts on the commercial fishery on the north and central coast of British Columbia and not to have the regional director general there defending the DFO's evidence I believe is really appalling," she said.
DFO didn't reply to a Citizen request for comment on the department's decision not to send higher level staff to the hearings.
Later Tuesday, Chris Peter of Prince George questioned the second government witness panel on issues surrounding the corrosiveness of sediments in pipelines. In a highly technical set of questions, the local engineer discussed recent studies into the properties of hydrocarbons with Natural Resources Canada expert Bill Santos.
The second government witness panel will be cross-examined by the environmental coalition, the Haisla Nation and the JRP on Wednesday, which could be the last day of hearings in Prince George.