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Mi’kmaq protesters block access to proposed N.S. natural gas storage site

A Mi'kmaq camp is seen on the shores of the Shubenacadie River in Fort Ellis, N.S., on Sept. 26, 2016.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mi'kmaq protesters blocked 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 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.

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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.

Cheryl Maloney, a Mi'kmaq activist who helped organize the blockade, said it remained peaceful through the day with police keeping a distance.

"It's absolutely peaceful," said Maloney Monday evening. "We let the trucks leave from the worksite and we let their (security guards') food come in."

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) because 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 Maloney.

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"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.

Later Monday, Maloney said she had not heard back from the premier's office. She said Alton did ask to speak with the chief of the Indian Brook band, but she said the band is wary of any negotiation because of past legal threats from the company.

She said the protesters would remain overnight and are hoping to hear from government or company officials on Tuesday.

"We're hoping somebody is going to make a move," she said.

In a statement released to the news media McNeil said he was limited to what he could say because of legal proceedings related to opposition to the project.

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"But I can say I am confident that the Crown has met its obligation to consult with the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia and others on this project. Nova Scotians should be aware that this project only received approval after years of consultation and environmental review."

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, said 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.

A representative of AltaGas said the company is monitoring the situation and was concerned primarily with the safety of its workers and the public.

"We respect the right of individuals to express their views in a safe manner; however Alton is an active construction site," said Lori Maclean in an email. "Law enforcement representatives have been contacted."

Maclean said the project has received all necessary environmental and industrial approvals for the storage project, following years of scientific monitoring of the tidal river by Dalhousie University and a Mi'kmaq-led independent third party science review in 2015.

"The company accepted the independent review's recommendations and strengthened its environmental monitoring program as a result," she said.

She said 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 said 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.

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