Relaxation of regulations, lack of ‘straight answers’ harms legitimacy of process
Coastal First Nations has pulled out of a critical Northern Gateway hearing on Enbridge’s marine oil spill response plans, saying the hearings have drained the organization’s financial resources and are providing few answers.
“We might as well keep our powder dry and save it for court,” CFN executive director Art Sterritt said Monday, expressing dissatisfaction over the cost of attending the hearings and over what he called “a difficult time” getting answers from Northern Gateway applicant Enbridge.
Further, he said, the hearing process has been stripped of its legitimacy by the federal government’s omnibus budget bill. The organization, which represents nine First Nations groups on the north and central coast, lost confidence in the hearings after Ottawa relaxed environmental regulations in the 2012 budget bill, Sterritt said.
“We are tapped out. We would be jeopardizing the whole organization if we were to continue,” Sterritt said.
Two of the nine CFN members will be at the Prince Rupert hearing – the Heilt-suk from Bella Bella and the Haida – where Enbridge officials are answering questions about their maritime spill prevention and response capabilities to the federal and provincial governments, aboriginal groups, non-governmental organizations and other registered interveners.
Sterritt said Coastal First Nations has spent triple the amount of the $261,000 provided to it by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency so it could be represented at the Joint Review Panel hearings.
The hearings, which have a public and technical component, have been taking place throughout B.C. and Alberta since January 2012.
The technical question-and-answer format is taking longer than anyone expected, Sterritt said.
“We are having a very difficult time getting straight answers or getting any answer at all. We are trying to use the judicial idea of the process to try to get those answers out of them about the science they are putting on the table,” Sterritt said.
“We sit there with half a dozen Enbridge lawyers and 20 technical people basically stonewalling us while we try to ask questions.”
“And right smack in the middle of it we have had this funding problem.”
Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway said it’s unfortunate that Coastal First Nations has pulled out of the process but he defended Enbridge’s role in the hearings. Enbridge has spent $300 million so far on the process, most of it spent on environmental and engineering studies now being presented at the questioning phase of the review.
“That money is being spent responsibly to answer the questions that people want answered. It is not being spent on lawyers,” he said. “I find it difficult to understand that somebody could say we are not answering questions. We have been answering questions for over a year and we are answering them in detail. It is unfortunate that we don’t get the attention paid to the detailed part of the hearings compared to, for example, the oral statements or the protests that happened outside some of the hearings at major venues.”
He said Enbridge has provided First Nations affected by its proposal with $12 million in funding so they can be involved in the hearings, including some individual coastal First Nations, but has not provided Sterritt’s organization with funding.
Isabelle Perrault, of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said in an email that the agency made $3 million in funding available to help aboriginal groups participate in the review process – including $261,000 to the Coastal First Nations group and $736,610 to three separate coastal First Nations.
“The joint review panel process is the primary mechanism for aboriginal groups to learn about the project and present their views to the federal government,” she said.
Coastal First Nations is only one of many aboriginal organizations involved in the Northern Gateway issue, said environmentalist Tzeporah Berman.
“The one thing over a hundred Nations have in common is that they are all opposing this pipeline,” she said.
The Prince Rupert hearing is one of five formal hearings where interveners can question Enbridge directly on pipeline impacts. The questioning phase is a separate and more technical process from the public oral statement sessions, which wrapped up last week in Kelowna.
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake is to be at the Prince Rupert hearing today , where government officials are taking part in the cross-examination of Northern Gateway representatives on key issues around marine spills.
The Prince Rupert hearing is a followup on the last round of questioning regarding land-based spill response asked in Prince George in October 2012, the ministry stated in a news release.