PRINCE GEORGE, BC – Northern B.C. First Nation leaders who this week agreed to consider an alternate oil-pipeline proposal say they will block any attempt to move oil through B.C. by rail.
Chief Dan George of Burns Lake Band; Chief Archie Patrick of Stellat’en First Nation; Larry Marsden, Head Chief, on behalf of the Gitsegukla hereditary chiefs; Art Mathews, Head Chief on behalf of the Gitwangak Hereditary Chiefs; and Wes Sam, Business and Economic Development Lead, Burns Lake Band have committed to exploring how Eagle Spirit Energy could address the concerns identified by Northern First Nations regarding oil by rail. Currently, a plan is in place to organize a meeting of northern Chiefs (likely in the 30-45 days) to discuss how to stop or block oil by rail.
First Nations in B.C. have overwhelmingly rejected Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would transport bitumen across the province and on to Asia through Kitimat. As a result, however, oil companies are now shipping oil by rail in record and growing volumes, increasing risks to the environment and northern communities.
Current rail capacity exceeds 1.1 million barrels per day and CN and CP Rail are investing in new infrastructure to handle this growth. Rail is now the dominant transport strategy for some oil companies.
The tragedy in Lac-Mégantic two years ago illustrated the dangers posed by oil shipment by rail. In 2013, there were 110 train derailments in B.C. alone. As in Lac-Mégantic, a significant number of First Nation communities are located on the railroad, which often splits the community in two.
Three more derailments occurred over two days illustrating the First Nation Chiefs’ concerns. Valentines Day saw the derailment of 12 cars carrying Oil in the Crowsnest pass, leaving two cars overturned. Later that day, a CN train derailed south of Timmins, Ontario involving 29 of the 100 rail cars, leading to a fire. Add to that, the catastrophic derailment one day later on February 15th, and the subsequent state of emergency declared in West Virginia, as bomb-like explosions and fire resulted, and oil began flowing into the Kanawha River.
According to Chief Patrick, “These derailments are not the exception; they represent our new reality, with a derailment occurring on average, every 60 minutes.”
According to Hereditary Chief, Larry Marsden, “Are we expected to sit back and wait until this [a derailment] happens in our community or along our rivers? The railway and oil companies have put us in position where we are forced to do nothing, or take action. As stewards of the land, and protectors of the environment, we will not sit by, idle”.
“The railroad systems were built to avoid steep climbs, which means they often follow lakes, rivers and other vulnerable ecosystems” says Stellat’en First Nation Chief Archie Patrick, “and these rail cars are carrying many toxic products: crude oil, bitumen, jet-fuel, sulfuric acid, ammonia, ethanol, chlorine, etc., yet there is no environmental assessment, consultation, or permitting processes”.
Nor is First Nation consent or consultation required, in spite of the landmark Tsilhqot’in decision, which reinforced the fact that First Nations have rights and title over their land and must be consulted. “The railway is allowed to function with impunity, and is under no obligation to consult, disclose or collaborate with anyone,” says Wes Sam.
Chief Dan George of the Burns Lake Indian Band says oil by rail is a serious threat. “We are obligated as leaders in this province, as First Nation chiefs, to be on the defensive and to explore and study alternatives. This is why we are currently exploring the Eagle Spirit Energy Project as an alterative to oil by rail.”
Hereditary Chief Art Mathews agreed. “If industry spent more time working with us, and ensuring that they have our support for any project on our land, and less time working around us, they would find out that we are willing to look at all business opportunities. We cannot and will not leave the protection our pristine, food and life giving waters [the Skeena River] to the railway and oil companies. We will take action to ensure that they are never put at risk, or the very future of our land and our people is put at risk”.
The chiefs understand that oil will move across the province, but Chief George is clear when he says, “Before, our opposition was our only way to assert our rights and title, and now it’s about the safety of our families, children and environment. And if my community is any indication of the concern about oil by rail, and the conviction that they have to stop it, the rail and oil companies had better take notice and begin to talk with us”.
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