Mi’kmaq communities and non-Indigenous allies have been actively opposing the completion of the Alton Gas project near Stewiacke, Nova Scotia.
Alton Gas proposed to create four salt caverns in order to store natural gas underground, with the intention to build up to 15 more (they've since dropped two of the caverns).
The project is designed to draw nearly 10,000 cubic metres of water daily from the Shubenacadie River estuary and push it through a 12-kilometre underground pipeline to the cavern site. There, the water will be pumped underground to flush out salt to create the caverns. The brine created by the salt dissolution will then be pumped back to the estuary for release into the river system (Campbell, 2019)
Once at peak brine generation, an estimated 10,000 cubic metres of brine will be released into the river each day until all caverns have been hollowed out (Hubley, 2016). The storage caverns are needed by AltaGas subsidiary Heritage Gas, which sells natural gas in the Halifax area and to utility Nova Scotia Power, which generates 22 per cent of its electricity from natural gas. Heritage Gas wants to stockpile its product during the colder months to protect its customers from price shocks when demand spikes.
Alton Gas claims of savings for natural gas customers has always been disputed (Summers, 2016). Each of the caverns are expected to be about 80 metres high by 50 metres wide. The caverns would be linked to the nearby Maritimes and Northeast natural gas pipeline, about 60 kilometres north of Halifax (Macdonald, 2018).
In the fall of 2014, construction started on a brine discharge pipeline despite the fact that the development had not yet received full government approval, and “it was met with swift protest. A camp was soon erected that was largely occupied by local Mi’kmaw protesters. For many, this was not only the first time hearing of the Alton Gas project, but also their first realization that components of their elected band leadership had known of the project for years” (Howe, 2016).
“The Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative (KMKNO), the organization which claims consulting authority for 12 of the province’s 13 Mi’kmaw communities, had been aware of the project and engaged in consultations with the Nova Scotia government and Alton Gas since 2006. But in 2014, during the protests, the KMKNO publicly asserted that Alton Gas and the province had not yet fulfilled their consultative requirements in terms of compensation plans and demanded the project cease until such obligations were met”
“The Alton Gas project has received opposition from the very beginning, particularly from local First Nations Bands Sipekne’katik and Millbrook but also non-Indigenous community members. Actions included highway blockades, development site encampment and educational events, letter writing campaigns and court appeals
In April 2016, Sipekne’katik and Millbrook First Nations, the Shubenacadie River Commercial Fishermen’s Association, The Council of Canadians and the Ecology Action Centre announced that they were each submitting Appeals to the provincial government “on grounds that Alton Gas provided inadequate research, has not considered impacts on local fish populations and groundwater sources and that the province has not fulfilled its duty to meaningfully consult with First Nations communities” (Hubley, 2016).
The Sipekne’katik, Millbrook and broader Mi’kmaq mobilized to assert their treaty rights to food gathering and to defend “Water as Life” (Flier). In September 2016, the Mi’kmaw water protectors began watching Alton development site from a Treaty Truck House that they built along the banks of the Shubenacadie. The Treaty Truck House was built as a place from which to resist the project but it also serves to evoke the 1752 Treaty of Friendship and Peace which promised hunting, fishing, and trading rights in exchange for peace (Lewis, n.d.).
A truckhouse is a trading post set up to facilitate trade between Mi’kmaq and their trading partners
and right to have a truck house is explicitly laid out in the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty (Treaty Truck House Against Alton Gas, n.d.).
Mi'kmaw water protectors spent all winter in the truck house. And then on May 23, 2017, they set up a Treaty Camp along the entrance to the Alton Gas work site, effective blocking the company from working on the project. Since that time, they have built a strawbale house, a greenhouse, gardens, a chicken coup and other infrastructure at the Alton site, where Mi'kmaw water protectors live year-round.
Resistance to the project is based on concern over ecological impacts including harm to fish, other wildlife and the river ecosystem. Indeed it is “against federal regulations in the federal Fisheries Act to deposit brine into a body of water where fish frequent” (Greenland-Smith & Poulette, 2019). There is also concern about increased greenhouse gas emissions from the natural gas production contributing to climate change (Hubley, 2016).
The safety of the natural gas storage is also a major concern. “Salt cavern gas storage has a 40% failure rate globally and a 65% failure rate in the U.S and pose a serious threat to groundwater” (Hubley, 2016). “These failures have lead to massive explosions that can kill or injure workers and locals, as well as to the uncontrollable release of extremely toxic chemicals into the air, soils and waters of local environments and communities, forcing locals out of their homes while threatening their health” (Hubley, 2016)
“The resistance is also based on the project violating of Treaty rights and title of Mi’kmaq.
Alton Gas has also not acquired consent from the Mi’kmaq Nation and their design knowingly violates the Treaty Rights of Mi’kmaq” (Greenland-Smith & Poulette, 2019), including their right to fish.
Despite Alton's assertion that they have been consulting the Sipekne'katik First Nation since 2006, many band members say they did not hear of the project until Alton Gas started construction in 2014. “Residents were given little-to-no notice of any public meetings for hearing their concerns about the project, before it went ahead” (Hubley, 2016).
“The government has indicated it has fulfilled its duty to meaningfully consult with First Nations about the project, in part because it acquired the approval of the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative (KMKNO). However, both Sipekne’katik and Millbrook Nations have been polarized from the KMKNO over this issue, because they feel there has been no consultation. Despite their official appeals to halt the project until proper consultation has been followed through, the provincial government has given Alton Gas a green light (Hubley, 2016).
Alton Gas says that plan has been put on hold because of “project and regulatory planning.” (Macdonald, 2018). The company has recently asked the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board to extend its cavern construction permit to Sept. 1, 2023 (Cooke, 2018). Alton Gas has already drilled three wells at the Brentwood Road site and plans additional well drilling. The in- service date for cavern storage has been moved to 2022, a date Alton says reflects the time needed to complete the caverns (Campbell, 2019).
1752: the Treaty of Friendship and Peace was signed, promising hunting, fishing, and trading rights in exchange for peace. It also provided for a ‘Truck house’ (Lewis, n.d.)
2006: Communications began between The Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative (KMKNO), Nova Scotia government and Alton Gas. This did not include proper consultation process.
Fall 2014: Construction started on a brine discharge pipeline next to the Shubenacadie River (Hubley, 2016).
Sept 2014: KMKNO publicly asserted that Alton Gas and the province had not yet fulfilled their consultative requirements and demanded the project cease until such obligations were met.
The province declared the consultations complete and gave Alton the permits to continue its work (Hubley, 2016).
February 2016: The Sipekne’katik band filed an appeal with Nova Scotia’s environment minister because of a perceived insufficiency in consultation with the band (Howe, 2016).
At least eight others groups submit appeals to stop development on the brine release site (Hubley, 2016).
March 2016: The project faces more opposition than ever (Hubley, 2016).
September 2016: The Mi’kmaw water protectors begin watching Alton from a Truck House that they built along the banks of the Shubenacadie, near the Alton Gas brine dumping site.
Sipekne’katik achieve a partial court victory in overturning the Provinces rejection of their appeal (filed in February). The provincial Supreme Court judge quashed the province’s rejection of the band’s appeal of the plan in January, saying the band was denied procedural fairness and ruled the province wrongly refused the band’s request to review and respond to reports on the project (Candian Press, 2017).
May 2017: Treaty camp was built at the entrance to Alton’s worksite, to prevent Alton Gas from working on the project.
Sept 2017: Mi’kmaq band awarded $75,000 in court costs.
Fall 2017: Water protectors at Treaty camp (and allies) began building a strawbale house at the front gate with the intention to winter at the camp.
Jan 2019: There are already three wells drilled at the Brentwood Road site, near Alton and Stewiacke, and Alton Gas plans additional well drilling (Campbell 2019). The in-service date for cavern storage has been moved to 2022 (Campbell, 2019)..
February 2019: Alton applied for an injunction from
Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to remove 'protestors' so that it can access to its
facilities (Canadian Press, 2019).
March 2019: Mi'kmaq matriarchs served the eviction notice to Alton Gas. This is done in conjunction with the
Treaty Beneficiary Association of the Mi’kmaw People, are calling on
Nova Scotians to implore their MPs to intervene in the project and sign a
petition calling for its end (McShefferly, 2019).
March 2019: NS supreme court approves Alton Gas' injunction to have 'protestors' removed. Outside
the courthouse, a group of about 50 protesters held banners arguing
the Nova Scotia courts were consistently failing to protect the rights
of Indigenous people (Tutton, 2019a). Indigenous land defenders are ordered off site, ending the 2 year occupation (Campbell, 2019).
April 2019: A court order laid out a small patch of fenced land where Aboriginal
and other protesters will be required to remain as they oppose a plan to
store natural gas in underground caverns north of Halifax. The
designated area of grassy field, about 22 metres by 38 metres, is part
of a Nova Scotia Supreme Court order that details how a temporary
injunction against protesters on the Alton Gas property will be applied.
But opponents dismissed the official “protest site” as a “play pen” in comments on the “Stop Alton Gas” Facebook site.
Michelle Paul posted on Twitter, “There is no cage big enough to contain our treaty spirit” (Tutton, 2019b).