“We are often mistaken as environmentalists, but we are not fighting for the environment for the sake of the environment… We are advocating for our economy and our community which depend upon a healthy environment.”—Dana Hibbard 

Dana Hibbard is the LNG Outreach and Education Coordinator of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. She lives in Hazelton, B.C., located on the Skeena River, approximately 250 km northeast of the coastal port city of Prince Rupert. The following interview was conducted by blogger Roger Annis in April 2014.

Q:  Could you tell us something of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition? 

Hibbard: Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition was formed around kitchen tables and campfires ten years ago over concerns about Shell’s plans to frack for natural gas in the Sacred Headwaters-the birthplace of three of Canada’s greatest wild salmon rivers — the Skeena, Nass and Stikine [See geographic notes below]. We have always believed that the people who live where development is being proposed should have a major role in the decision-making process as they will be the ones to live with the consequences.

Our region celebrated a tremendous victory just over a year ago when Royal Dutch Shell, one of the largest corporations on the planet, voluntarily gave up their tenure in the Sacred Headwaters.  We continue to work towards protection for this area and anticipate that 2014 could be the year that this becomes a reality [See SWCC ‘Sacred Headwaters Campaign‘].

Our watershed is currently facing an unprecedented number of development proposals, from the Headwaters to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean, this pristine watershed is being overwhelmed by a massive influx of industry. Prior to any Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) projects being proposed, there was already approximately $10 billion in construction of major industrial projects underway.

SWCC supports responsible development for our communities that doesn’t come at the cost of our wild salmon, steelhead, culture or our existing economy. 

Q: The Coalition represents people in communities across the B.C. northwest?

SWCC is comprised of a diverse group of people living and working in the Skeena Watershed — loggers, miners, farmers, guide outfitters and commercial, sport and recreational fishermen. Despite our different backgrounds, we are united by a strong connection to our watershed. Our role is to empower the citizens of this region with education and outreach so they can make informed decisions.

This region has a strong history of hearing from all sides of an issue and making their minds up for themselves on what kind of development they do and do not want to see in their community. 

Q: Can you describe your work to protect salmon and other fish species?

We protect salmon and steelhead by protecting their habitat and by documenting where they spawn. We have several examples of documenting previously unknown runs of salmon and steelhead which then informed government and industry of critical salmon habitat areas. 

Q: Another huge development proposed for the north of B.C. are the plans to build a liquefied natural gas industry on the coast and feed it with fracked natural gas piped from the northeast. What are the concerns and where do these projects stand?

Our primary concerns are the pace and scale at which this development is being proposed, the incredible increase in fracking that would be required to feed these LNG pipelines, and the location of the proposed projects. This industry has not been previously developed in Canada and certainly not in a wild salmon ecosystem such as the Skeena. 

This gas comes from fracking which is an industry we have previously opposed in this watershed. LNG pipelines could potentially open up new areas to be fracked in our watershed that previously weren’t viable due to the lack of pipeline and other infrastructure.

There are two terminals proposed for the Skeena River Estuary, which is critical habitat for juvenile wild salmon and steelhead. The proposed pipeline routes would amount to an enormous linear disturbance to wilderness areas and would open up these pristine areas to further development. 

Petronas is proposing to build a terminal on Lelu Island [Prince Rupert], next to Flora Bank which is known as a salmon sanctuary. All five species of wild salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Skeena River seek refuge in the eel grass habitat of Flora Bank. When juvenile salmon and steelhead arrive at the Pacific, they are in a very fragile period of their life cycle. They are adjusting to salt water, ocean tides and new predators. Flora Bank is a refuge for the frye and smolts during this period of adjustment.

In 1973, a superport was proposed for the Skeena Estuary. This proposal was rejected due to a Department of the Environment study that a project like this near Flora Bank would destroy much of this critical salmon habitat. Why are we now 40 years later considering building two?

As we looked deeper, we began to realize that the potential adverse consequences of this industry go far beyond its environmental impacts and include severe social, economic and cultural impacts.

As we speak, test drilling is underway along the Skeena River by one of the pipeline proponents. Most of the projects are still in the early phases and have not yet been through the environmental assessment, but residents are already experiencing the stress of rapid industrial development. There has been an enormous spike in helicopter and road traffic. Housing prices are shooting up in communities like Kitimat and Prince Rupert with the expectations of an influx of temporary workers. 

Q: I understand that one of the concerns with LNG is the quality of the airshed in the northwest. It’s already compromised by emissions from ocean shipping and Rio Tinto‘s aluminum smelter in Kitimat?

The air pollution from LNG plants would drastically increase the pollution in the region. Skeena Wild Conservation Trust recently released a report titled Air Advisory: The Air Quality Impacts of Liquefied Natural Gas (pdf). The report states, “As proposed, three liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants planned for Kitimat, B.C. will together burn a quantity of natural gas equivalent to two-and-a-half times combusted annually by the 2.4 million residents of Metro Vancouver — sharply escalating air pollution in the northern city. This spike in air pollution would have serious consequences for wild salmon and local communities.

Q: Has the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition been able to create alliances with environmental groups in the urban areas and elsewhere in southern B.C.?

SWCC is here on behalf of our community. Countless members of our community have spoken out about the proposed LNG projects and asked us to take a stand and work to educate others across the province… We have a strong history in this region of determining the pace and scale of development we want to see. People have repeatedly stood together to protect wild salmon, the pillar of our economy and our culture.

Some of our allies are environmental groups but we also work closely with Guide Outfitters and rod and gun clubs. We are often mistaken as environmentalists but we are not fighting for the environment for the sake of the environment. We are advocating for our economy and our community which depend upon a healthy environment. The wild salmon contribute $110 million every year, guide outfitting is another $28 million. Every seven years, we get $1 billion simply for keeping our watershed intact.    

Q: You recently did a speaking tour with others in Vancouver, Victoria and the Gulf Islands to speak of the proposed LNG industry. Can you tell us of your work with these groups, and how did the speaking tour go?

SWCC was invited by the Wilderness Committee to join them in a series of town hall meetings. We shared the experiences of people living and working in this region and how we are already being impacted by this proposed industry. Most of the projects being proposed have not yet received an environmental assessment certificate but we are already feeling the impacts of rampant industrialization on our communities. We think it is important for the population centers of B.C. to understand that what government and industry are saying in the papers is very different from the reality we are facing in the north. 

This tour was an important opportunity to establish connections between the north and south of the province. With LNG terminals being proposed for southern locations such as Squamish, now is a critical time to bring people together across the province to confront the impacts this industry would have on our climate, economy and communities.

These projects are a provincial issue, not just a northwest issue. The B.C. government is supporting the rampant development of this industry without consulting the people who live in these communities. If these projects go through, the impacts will be felt across the entire province.

Geographic notes:
The Nass and Skeena Rivers flow into the Pacific Ocean near the small city of Prince Rupert on the northern coast of B.C. The Stikine River flows into the Pacific on the Alaska Panhandle, app. 200 km south of Juneau.

Prince Rupert is located 50 km from the southern border of the Alaska Panhandle and 800 km northwest of Vancouver. It is a western terminus of CN Rail and a large port for the shipment of grains, coal, chemicals and lumber and paper products. It is also a large container shipping port.

Kitimat lies 150 km east and south of Prince Rupert, at the head of the long and narrow Douglas Channel. It is the proposed terminus of the hotly contested proposal of Enbridge Inc. to build a ‘Northern Gateway’ pipeline and ocean tanker terminal to export Alberta tar sands bitumen to international markets.

To contact or donate to the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, go here to its website.

The Vancouver Observer has recently published a series of articles on issues surrounding LNG projects and the Northern Gateway pipeline project, by its correspondent Mychaylo Prystupa:
* Defiant northern Chief galvanizes BC First Nations against Premier’s LNG plans, April 23, 2014
* Kitimat Council votes 4-1 to oppose Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline
* Victory over Enbridge celebrated in Kitimat, April 14, 2014
* Kitimat ‘growing like Fort McMurray’: a mayor’s prayers answered?, Feb 3, 2014

Roger Annis

Roger Annis

Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network (CHAN) and its Vancouver affiliate, Haiti Solidarity BC. He has visited Haiti in August 2007 and June 2011. He is a frequent writer and...