The components of a failed natural gas storage project in Stewiacke, N.S., will be decommissioned by the end of 2022, according to plans from the company behind the project.
As originally conceived more than 14 years ago, the Alton Gas project would have seen natural gas stored in 15 huge underground salt caverns, flushed out with water from the nearby Shubenacadie River.
The province approved of the plan and some infrastructure was built, but the project was never fully realized.
The project stalled several times over the years and was consistently met with resistance from environmentalists and some members of the Mi'kmaw community.
The Sipekne'katik band took the province to court over the project last year and a judge ordered the government to restart consultation with the band, but that was waylaid by the pandemic.
In October, Alton Gas, a subsidiary of Calgary energy company AltaGas, announced the project was dead, citing a 2020 internal review that found the project to be "economically challenging."
In a plan released publicly this week, the company addresses three major components for decommissioning: a site near the river, a site near the caverns, and a pipeline connecting the two.
The plan is to begin decommissioning in spring 2022 and finish by the fall, with environmental monitoring to continue into 2023.
Buildings to be dismantled, pipelines abandoned
The company's plan is to dismantle above-ground structures, remove buried equipment that's within 1.2 metres of the surface, and abandon any deeper buried components.
On the banks of the Shubenacadie River there are two buildings — a pumphouse and an electrical building that were never operational — a brine storage pond surrounded by a chain-link fence and some buried equipment.
At the river site there's also a channel dug in 2014 to divert water from the river. Natural infilling of the channel has already begun, the document says, creating a salt marsh.
"The infilled channel causes no adverse effect on fish and fish habitat and does not preclude the river or shoreline from fulfilling similar ecological functions and uses that existed before the project," the plan reads.
It goes on to say the salt marsh is "an asset for reclamation" because of historical loss of that type of habitat in Nova Scotia due to diking for agricultural purposes.
The cavern site is fully fenced in and contains three incomplete wells, an equipment building, water and brine storage tanks, a nitrogen generator and some buried piping.
Much of the equipment at both sites was never used and will be salvaged for resale, reuse or recycling. Some concrete pads, power lines and the perimeter fence at the cavern site are to be left in place.
Most of the pipeline connecting the river and cavern sites will be abandoned, which the plan says will reduce disturbances to natural habitat and watercourses. The high-density polyethylene pipeline runs about 12 kilometres between the sites.
The future of the land
Alton Gas has some leases on Crown land, which the decommissioning plan says will be terminated, but most of the project sits on land owned by the company. There are about 10 hectares at the river site and about 80 hectares at the cavern site.
The plan briefly mentions preparing the cavern site for sale. Lori MacLean, a spokesperson for the company, said via email the decommissioning process will include creating an inventory of all project assets, including land, "and a process for the disposition of those assets."
Ducie Howe is hoping land will be transferred to the Mi'kmaq.
"That would be the right thing to do," said Howe, who is from Sipekne'katik First Nation.
"We need the land back. We are the land ... and if they're not going to use it anymore and they've had it for all these years and they're decommissioning, well, give it back to us."
MacLean did not directly answer CBC's question about whether a land transfer to the Mi'kmaq was being considered.
Mi'kmaw-built structure to remain
Howe is one of the Mi'kmaw activists who has resisted the Alton Gas project. Part of that resistance effort included setting up a camp on and adjacent to the company's land at the edge of the river.
One small mud-and-straw hut that blocked access to some of the Alton Gas facilities was bulldozed in 2019 following a court injunction, but another Mi'kmaw-built structure, adjacent to the company's property, still stands.
Those who built and use it call it the treaty truckhouse — reflective of trading posts of the past — and Howe said there are no plans to remove it. In fact, Howe said the structure was just recently reinforced and given a new roof.
"Even though Alton is going to decommission, that's still going to remain because it's still a treaty right to erect a truckhouse anywhere on the Shubenacadie River. And, not only that, that land is sovereign land and it's being used for ceremony."
It has been argued but not settled in court that the Mi'kmaq have a right to Crown land along the Shubenacadie River and Alton's privately owned land on the river.
Province processing application
All of Alton Gas's plans are contingent on regulatory approval. A spokesperson for the provincial Department of Environment and Climate Change said the company has filed an application and is currently undertaking public consultation.
Once all required information has been received, the department will consult with First Nations and other government departments, and respond within 60 days.
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