Mi'kmaq protesters are blocking access to a construction site near proposed natural gas storage caverns in Nova Scotia, saying the project threatens a tidal river that passes through their traditional lands.
About 20 people were gathered near the Alton project in Fort Ellis on Monday, close to a small island where the tidal Shubenacadie River meets a channel in which salt water is to be discharged.
Mi'kmaq elder Isabelle Knockwood held eagle feathers and members of the group spread juniper branches over the road near the locked steel gate, as four private security officers calmly looked on.
An RCMP negotiator in plain clothes came to the site, but there was no visible police presence as the group erected a canopy, deck chairs and a table with a red blanket on it directly in front of the gate around 8 a.m. local time.
The natural gas storage project would pump water from the winding Shubenacadie river to the underground salt cavern site about 12 kilometres away, where it will be used to help empty the caverns.
The briny water that results would be pumped back into the river system.
The Mi'kmaq protesters, who have been joined by some local residents opposed to the project, say they're upset over the plan by AltaGas Ltd. (TSX:ALA), arguing it poses environmental risks to fisheries they have accessed for centuries.
"We're willing to sit here and hear back from Alton, to hear back from Nova Scotia, to hear back from the federal ministers and to hear back from the prime minister," said Cheryl Maloney, a Mi'kmaq activist who helped organize the blockade.
"There is too many things wrong with this project."
As television crews filmed, she called Premier Stephen McNeil's office to ask for a meeting to discuss the Crown's responsibility to protect Mi'kmaq fishing rights in the area.
The natives also say they have a treaty right to be on a small island where the water is to be discharged.
The Mi'kmaq have set up teepee poles and flags on the island and eel traps along the island's banks, even though the site is behind the fenced off construction site belonging to Alton.
Maloney, who is also the president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, says they will remain at the entrance of the riverside construction site indefinitely.
"The risk of irreparable harm to species and territories means irreparable harm to the rights of the Mi'kmaq," she said.
The company says the project has received all necessary environmental and industrial approvals for the storage project, following more than eight years of scientific monitoring of the tidal river.
Lori Maclean of AltaGas has said in previous news releases that the firm has continued to engage with the government, the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia, local residents and other stakeholders to answer questions about Alton and to address concerns.
She says that since 2006, Alton has been meeting with stakeholders including landowners, community members, government and the Mi'kmaq to share information and exchange viewpoints "in a respectful manner."
"The brine created by this process, a mixture of tidal water and the dissolved salt, will be released back into the river at a salinity level within the range of normal salinity for the river,'' Maclean wrote in a recent email.