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Sipekne’katik First Nation and Alton Gas: Reflecting on Intersections between Race, Environmental Rights, and Industry

November 24, 2017

In recent years, racism has been pushed to the forefront of environmental conversations in Nova Scotia. Organizations like the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health (ENRICH) Project and the Peace and Friendship Alliance of Nova Scotia, along with committed community groups and activists working throughout the region, are demonstrating that Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian communities in this province suffer disproportionately from environmental harms. In April 2015, NDP MLA Lenore Zann tabled Bill 111, An Act to Address Environmental Racism, in the Nova Scotia legislature. In April 2017, the Nova Scotia Environmental Rights Working Group (NSERWG) launched a draft Environmental Bill of Rights that explicitly recognizes and seeks to redress the disproportionate harms suffered by Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian communities. This October, an event organized by KAIROS Canada put a spotlight on Indigenous attempts to protect local watersheds and asked what reconciliation can and should look like in the context of environmental activism.

These are just some of the many examples that point to a groundswell of public attention to environmental racism in Nova Scotia. ECELAW is proud to have been involved in a number of these initiatives, and we know that our relationships with ENRICH and the NSERWG have been mutually beneficial. The legal expertise that we bring to the table is enhanced by the expertise of the affected communities that share their experiences and insights with us, and we know that together we are building critical legal analyses that can respond to lived realities in Nova Scotia today.

We also recognize how much work remains to be done, and we are committed to the campaign for environmental justice for all. It is with these thoughts in mind that we turn our attention to the shores of the Sipekne’katik River, also known as the Shubenacadie.

In recent months, Sipekne’katik First Nation’s resistance to the Alton Natural Gas Storage LP project has been making ripples in the media. In a bid to stabilize the price of natural gas in Nova Scotia, Alton intends to create natural gas storage caverns near Stewiake by using water from the Sipekne’katik River to flush out massive salt deposits that exist deep underground. Flushing out the salt deposits will create hollowed-out caverns where natural gas can be stored. The saline discharge (brine) created by the process will be channelled into the Sipekne’katik River, which, according to Alton’s plans, will then carry the discharge out into the ocean.

Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment and Labour issued an Environmental Assessment Approval of the storage caverns project in December 2007. Since then, Alton has stressed its assurances that strict guidelines will prevent the project from having negative impacts on aquatic life in the Sipekne’katik River. Members of Sipekne’katik First Nation continue to voice concerns regarding potential impacts on several species of fish, the overall health of the watershed, interference with Mi’kmaw treaty rights, and the potential loss of Mi’kmaw cultural identity.

In November 2016, Sipekne’katik First Nation took Alton and the Province of Nova Scotia to court over inadequate consultation and procedural unfairness during the ongoing approval process for the storage caverns project. After the Department of Environment issued an Industrial Approval for the brine storage pond and associated works that Alton plans to create, Sipekne’katik appealed to the Minister of Environment through the process set out in Nova Scotia’s Environment Act. When the Minister dismissed Sipekne’katik’s appeal, the First Nation appealed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia issued its decision in January 2017. It held that the Minister’s decision to dismiss Sipekne’katik First Nation’s appeal should be quashed on the basis of procedural unfairness, and it remitted the matter back to the Minister for reconsideration. Although this was a positive result for Sipekne’katik, the Court also found that it had no authority to grant a stay of the Industrial Approval now that the matter was being sent back to the Minister. As a result, the Court’s decision did not prevent Alton from moving forward with construction.

This is just one of many situations occurring across Canada in which Indigenous peoples are facing massive industrial developments that will affect their treaty rights and traditional territories. As ECELAW works to secure environmental rights that recognize and seek to redress the disproportionate harms suffered by historically marginalized and vulnerable communities in this province, we urge the public to stay informed and be actively engaged.

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