News: Science of trouble at the Alton Gas project site

The company points to years of study to bolster its argument that the Alton Gas project is not harmful to the Shubenacadie River system or the environment. A longtime weir fisherman counters that the science from those studies is flawed and incomplete.

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Darren Porter, a weir fisherman from Bramber, Hants County, stands by the Mi’kmaq truck house along the bank of the Shubenadie River estuary. Porter says the company behind the Alton Gas project does not have the social licence to go ahead with releasing large amounts of salt into the Shubenacadie River system. (FRANCIS CAMPBELL / Local Xpress)

FORT ELLIS, Colchester County — Controversy continues to bubble quietly along the shore of the Shubenacadie River estuary.

“I’m here to stop Alton Gas,” an understated but defiant Michelle Paul said late Friday afternoon as she and her young daughter busied themselves at the Mi’kmaq truck house set up by the river near Fort Ellis.

“I know it can be done, I know the power of the people when they come together in solidarity for a good cause and what better cause than to protect the water.”

The company is Alton Natural Gas Storage LP, a subsidiary of AltaGas, and the drawn-out plan is to build natural gas storage caverns deep underground at Brentwood Road, near Alton. To do that, the company will gradually release 1.3 million cubic metres of salt into the river system over a three-year period. The process would take nearly 10,000 cubic metres of water daily from the estuary and propel it through a 12-kilometre underground pipeline cavern site. There, the water would be pumped about 1,000 metres underground to flush out salt beds to create three initial gas storage caverns, each about the size of an average office building.

The dissolved salt would then be pumped back to the estuary site and into a newly created mixing channel before being gradually released into the river system at about 1,400 cubic metres of salt in each 10- to 11-hour ebb tide cycle, a cycle that will take the released brine down the tidal river to the ocean.

The company has received all the necessary environmental and industrial approvals for the construction work being done at the river site but the Mi’kmaq community, residents and fishermen’s associations say the project will kill or adversely affect the fish and organisms that populate the river.

“There have been assertions that the science is inadequate,” Alton spokeswoman Lori MacLean said of the studies that have been used to back up the project. “If you look at the level of the study that’s taken place, in particular over the last nine years, it’s just enormous in terms of understanding the river and the inhabitants of the river, the fish.”

Available to the public, that information covers the species of fish that can be found in the Shubenacadie River system and their size, feeding habits, spawning and post-spawning practices, migration and most importantly, salinity tolerances. The fish studied include the endangered Atlantic salmon, striped bass, eel, tomcod, gaspereau, blueback herring, shad, sturgeon, trout, flounder, rainbow smelt, catfish and perch.

The Alton website also addresses the brining plan, saying that the diluted brine to be released into the river will be within the range of salinities normally experienced in the river and that all organisms that live in the tidal river system are accustomed to quick changes in salinity.

The company also points to a 2015 independent third-party study conducted by Conestoga Rovers and Associates, a company that was retained by the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative on behalf of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs. The independent study was launched in response to complaints by the Mi’kmaq community that they were not consulted properly on the project.

Representatives from the Mi’kmaq community, the company and the federal and provincial governments met to discuss the independent study findings and the company’s monitoring plan was subsequently upgraded to include expanding shut-down periods during striped bass spawning from two weeks to 24 days, more frequent sampling when brining begins and an increased focus on intake and outfall sampling.

“It’s not just us saying that there has been a lot of activity regarding science research on the river,” MacLean said. “It’s documented, it’s factual and it’s posted in the public domain.” But longtime weir fisherman Darren Porter isn’t buying what the company and third-party science is selling.

“The fundamental problem is that science worries more about how they record data than they do about the data they are recording,” said Porter, who lives and fishes out of Bramber, Hants County. He was asked by the Sipekne’katik Band, located primarily in Indian Brook, to lend his fishing and species expertise to their project objections.

“These companies have protocols they are given when they come in. DFO says you must to this, you must study this species and they hire students and these students are trained to record data that they receive, whether that data is zero (fish) or whether that data is 100, it makes no difference. With First Nations and fishermen, we actually care more about the data they find than how they recorded it.”

Porter points to the tomcod species as an example.

“I think they caught four and they studied them two months after they should have been studying them, the spawning period. That doesn’t make us happy because we know there are a lot more than four. In my weir alone this year there were more 200,000 tommycod caught and sold. How can they only catch four?”

Porter said tomcod wasn’t particularly important to the company science.

“To actually only catch four of that species and actually look for the spawning period at the wrong time of year, that is very frustrating. It’s not accurate science to us. To them, they looked, they didn’t find any so it is adequate for them. They checked their box off. Checking boxes off isn’t sufficient in our minds.”

The company had been given permission to breach the dike adjacent to the river to create a channel to connect the river and to its holding and brining ponds. That channel now has created a small island in the river.

“They are going to be dumping brine full-strength behind that island,” Porter said. “They call it a mixing channel, we call it the river because it is the river. An eel comes up the river, which is very violent when the tide comes in, so it sticks to the edges, the calmer water. When they follow the edge up coming from the Minas Basin, they don’t have a sign that says now you have to turn away from the channel and go up the river. They are going to follow that edge right into the mixing channel and the full-strength brining.”

The Mi’kmaq have set eel traps in the channel and Porter said the ultimate test will be to ascertain if the brining process kills any eels caught in the traps. He expects the company to argue that the trap test is not natural, that the eels wouldn’t normally be in traps and that it is not the same as the free flow of river water.

“They just told all the people of Nova scotia and the world that this is a match with the river salinity, so what should it matter if the eels are in traps or not. They are telling the people that they are matching the salinity but they are not. They’ve misled the Nova Scotia people.”

Porter said companies always tout social licence, that they have the approval of the local community and other stakeholders to proceed with a project.

“It is a fact that they (Alton) don’ have it. The politicians are no longer looking after people, they are looking after industry. Who is being represented in Nova Scotia? Is it the people or is it Alton?”

While the Sipekne’katik District conservation group hopes to be joined by a marine biologist and environmental experts to do some immediate conservation work at the river site, project detractors have threatened  to occupy the site and make it difficult for the company to do its work. Police have been called more than once in the past several weeks when brining protesters have gathered near what Alton considers its work site.

“We’re hoping that we can sway them (government) and get those permits cancelled,” Paul said. “None of us want to see that salt going into the water. Once it does happen we know that the damage will be done and then it will be escalated to a different kind of dispute. We’re looking at preventative measures now.”

MacLean said the schedule to begin the brining process hasn’t been finalized yet and that the company wouldn’t comment on potential pushback against any protests planned for when brining commences.

“We are not going to speculate on what would happen or could happen in the future but what I would say is that Alton would welcome Mi’kmaq participation in the environmental monitoring.”

Motioning to her daughter, Paul, 40, said, “I want to hopefully be a grandmother some day and I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that we did everything we could to stop further damage to the water.”

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