Coastal GasLink is facing more criticism over water-quality concerns as a result of construction on its 670-kilometre pipeline through northern BC, this time in the western portion of the route near Kitimat.
On Feb. 19, the company received an order from BC’s Environmental Assessment Office for allowing sediment to flow into a watercourse where its pipeline right-of-way crosses the South Hirsch Forest Service Road, just east of Kitimat. The order requiring the company to prevent sediment-laden water from entering watercourse comes days after the company was fined $72,500 for similar violations that have repeatedly been identified along the pipeline route.
In addition, the BC Oil and Gas Commission confirmed Friday that it is investigating an incident that caused dozens of liters of diesel fuel to flow into Hirsch Creek, which flows into the Kitimat River about 10 kilometers before it joins the Douglas Channel.
“Hirsch Creek is a major tributary of the Kitimat River and it has significant populations of pink, chum, Chinook, steelhead and cutthroat trout,” said Greg Knox, executive director for SkeenaWild Conservation Trust. “So, it is a big contributor to the health of salmon in the Kitimat River and those fish contribute significantly to the local economy, to large sport fisheries and, in some years, significant commercial fisheries, and of course food fisheries for the Haisla. “
Coastal GasLink told The Tyee on Feb. 24 that ongoing issues with erosion and sediment control — which is blamed on the project’s scale and the challenging terrain it passes through — had been resolved by the time the province issued the $72,500 fine on Feb. 16.
However, the EAO’s new, Feb. 19 order indicates that was not the case. It comes as a result of inspections by EAO compliance and enforcement officers between Feb. 16 and 18, where they documented erosion and sediment-control issues similar to those for which the company had previously been cited.
The EAO issued the order in advance of posting an inspection report, the Ministry of Environment said, “as it is confident that CGL is not compliant with the requirements of the certificate and timely enforcement is necessary to remedy adverse effects before the full report can be issued.”
It gave Coastal GasLink five days to implement erosion and sediment-control measures that would prevent sediment-laden water from entering the watershed, something the company says was already underway when the order was issued.
In an email to The Tyee, a Coastal GasLink spokesperson said the company was already aware of the issues and planning to resolve them by the time EAO inspectors visited the site. They were resolved by Feb. 22 and a report made to the EAO on Feb. 24, the company said.
“Subsequent inspections in the area have confirmed that the mitigation is functioning effectively and the location continues to be monitored as the weather changes,” it said.
Rapid weather changes are being blamed for a previous incident, which caused Coastal GasLink equipment to become swamped at Hirsch Creek and release about 70 liters of fuel into the environment around Feb. 10. The incident was reported to the provincial spill line, according to the Ministry of Environment, and occurred about eight kilometers from where the sedimentation issue was identified just over a week later.
The pipeline route crosses Hirsch Creek about 20 kilometers before its terminus at the LNG Canada plant currently under construction in Kitimat.
The Oil and Gas Commission provided little information about the incident, and it says it is still investigating. Coastal GasLink blamed heavy rains in the days leading up to the flooding for causing water levels to rise over a meter “in a matter of hours.”
“Coastal GasLink initiated its Flood and Excessive Flow Contingency Plan the evening before and removed equipment from potential flood areas. Some equipment (specifically water control pumps) could not be safely removed in the dark prior to flood waters rising,” it says.
“Following this extreme weather event, evidence of diesel fuel floating on the surface of the flood waters was found caused by one of the pumps losing the cap to its fuel tank. Coastal GasLink immediately initiated its spill response procedures and the spill area was isolated using absorbent pads, booms and pumps.”
No downstream impacts were identified, the company said.
The Ministry of Environment added that no harmful substances were observed entering Hirsch Creek.
However, Patricia Lange, a Kitimat resident and member of Douglas Channel Watch, a local environmental group that formed in response to the previously proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline, says flash flooding is common in the area due to past logging.
She questions why the company was not prepared for such an event.
“We have huge rainfalls, huge instant floods, and then the floods disappear again, also really quickly. That’s common knowledge. It seems to me, it’s very obvious that if somebody is coming to work in an area like this, they would have those historical records of flooding,” Lange said.
In October 2020, the EAO received a similar anonymous complaint about flooding along the Coastal GasLink right-of-way roughly 10 kilometers east of Kitimat and north of the Kitimat River. In its inspection report into the incident, Coastal GasLink said that heavy rain over several days in late September had raised the water level of the Kitimat River by four meters in less than 24 hours.
While the EAO acknowledged that Coastal GasLink had predicted the heavy rainfall and implemented measures to reduce impacts on nearby waterbodies, it added that the company had failed to protect its equipment from flooding, indicating non-compliance with its environmental management plan “as CGL did not follow the Flood and Excessive Flow Contingency Plan.”
Lange says there’s “no excuse” for not expecting the area to flood, saying “anyone local knows that little creek floods every year.”
“Everybody knows it comes up super fast and goes down again super fast, because of the fact that the water doesn’t slow down on the land. The natural system has been modified by human behaviour,” says Lange. “You would think, based on all their environmental assessments, that they would know this before they proceed.”
However, the EAO chose not to take action against the company at the time, instead warning it that it was not complaint with its environmental management plan with respect to flood contingency.
The Oil and Gas Commission says it is investigating the recent incident, rather than the EAO, because it issued permits associated with the crossing. “Any approvals or permits issued at the same location by the EAO would be investigated separately by the EAO as our two organization authorities come from different acts,” it said.
The EAO has issued several orders against Coastal GasLink for violating its environmental management plan by allowing sediment to flow into waterways along the pipeline route. Those infractions date back to October 2020, when the issues were first identified and an order issued to the company. Subsequent orders against the original order were issued in the fall as a result of inspections that took place last spring.
At that time, the EAO recommended administrative penalties against the company. While it originally said those fines could cost Coastal GasLink in the millions of dollars, it later amended that figure, saying that the maximum fine for failing to comply with an order under BC’s Environmental Assessment Act is $100,000.
A second recommendation for administrative penalty is still being considered by the EAO, the Ministry of Environment said after the $72,500 fine was issued.
Knox said the fines are disappointing as increasingly governments talk about managing for cumulative effects. He said that pressures on the watershed have led to declining salmon populations and that issues like contamination and sedimentation can kill fish and smother salmon eggs, which are currently incubating in creeks.
“New pressure from clear-cutting the pipeline route and now from construction could significantly add pressures which would further degrade the watershed,” he said. “Even worse, they’re allowing the proponent to continually violate the conditions of their environmental assessment certificate.
“The fine CGL received of $72,500 doesn’t seem like much of an incentive to start following the rules when it probably costs them less money to continue to violate their conditions instead of doing things properly.”