A massive barge sat in the Port of Saint John Thursday, where it was being prepped to conduct borehole drilling for the controversial Energy East terminal at nearby Red Head, New Brunswick.

But activists contend that TransCanada Corporation has not received the proper permits for the work, which could interfere with endangered whales and migratory birds in the region. And area residents said they hadn’t been notified of the drilling.

The drilling takes place ahead of National Energy Board approval for the Energy East project.

“Many of us are still waiting to be approved for intervenor status with the National Energy Board, myself included,” said Red Head resident, Lynaya Astephan.

“I’ve yet to get that, so why is the work being done way ahead of time? Is this politically motivated before the federal election?”

If approved, the Energy East pipeline would pump 1.1 million barrels of oil sands and Bakken crude across six provinces to four Eastern Canadian refineries and export terminals. Saint John would be one of the export terminals.

The pipeline and terminals have been subject to hearings and protests across the country.

TransCanada will move the barge into place over the site for the proposed Energy East terminal and then carry out a roughly three-week operation, drilling boreholes.

The boreholes are used to determine the composition of the sea bed soil and rock and are the first stage in the design of the terminal.

The resulting holes are a few metres in length, according to Tim Duboyce, a spokesperson with TransCanada.

TransCanada needs only one permit for the work, a permit from Transport Canada for moving the barge through navigable waters, Duboyce said.

Duboyce claimed the work isn’t invasive. “It’s not noisy or anything,” he said.

But Mark D’Arcy, the Energy East campaigner with the Council of Canadians, disagrees. He argues that the drilling creates a continuous noise that will be transmitted through dozens of kilometres of the Bay of Fundy.

The noise could interfere with the area’s endangered population of North Atlantic right whales as well as the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds which use the route as a fly-way in the fall.

“TransCanada have already gone through this process with the Cacouna terminal, which they had to suspend and cancel the work there because they didn’t go through the proper channels,” D’Arcy said.

In April 2015, TransCanada announced it would not build a terminal at Cacouna, Quebec after the province recommended recognizing beluga whales as an endangered species.

A decision on work at the Cacouna terminal in the Quebec Superior Court in 2014 noted that the geotechnical work produced continuous noise.

D’Arcy pointed out that the right whales are under the same species at risk designation as the beluga whales, which caused the problems for TransCanada at Cacouna.

“So they have a short memory,” D’Arcy said.

Duboyce said the work isn’t being carried out within right whale habit and added that the testing won’t interfere with lobster season, which gets underway in November.

“We’ve done a full examination of the area,” he said. “This is actually an industrial site we’re in.”

Added Duboyce: “We’ve done environmental impact studies on this and we do not believe there’s going to be a material impact on any species.”

A spokesperson for the National Energy Board said the permitting for the work TransCanada is carrying out does not fall within its jurisdiction. "We expect companies will abide by all permits, approvals and processes as they as they gather scientific evidence regarding their project application," said Darin Barter.

He added that it is the NEB’s expectation that companies bring forward scientific evidence to support safety and environmental protection as part of their project application.

Along with 21 other groups and individuals, the Council of Canadians sent a letter Thursday to a number of federal and provincial ministers protesting the drilling and calling for a thorough information gathering, consultation and review process.

The groups said the consultations need to cover protection and conservation plans for migratory birds, fisheries and marine mammals, among other things.

New Brunswick's Department of Environment and Local Government didn't respond to the National Observer's questions by deadline.

The letter also expressed concern that the only notice of the work was given to five Red Head residents at a closed-door liason meeting with TransCanada officials and with no details or time frame.

The rest of the community learned of the work through the anonymous delivery of a six-page document to a Red Head resident.

Besides concerns over noise, area residents worry that the vibrations of the drilling into the sea bed could impact home foundations and wells.

The proposed terminal site also is on unceded Wolastoq First Nations territory.

Ron Tremblay of the Wolastoq Tribal Council said they’ve had very limited consultation with TransCanada to date.

“They’ve sent us messages along the way, but not actually sat down with us at any sort of meetings or asked us concerns that we might have dealing with the issue of testing at that location,” he said.