Kitimat Rod and Gun Club calls on local government to protect environment amid industrial boom

·9 min read

Kitimat locals are calling on the municipal government to adopt a suite of bylaws that safeguard ecological and recreational values as the northwest B.C. town navigates its way through an industrial boom.

The Kitimat Rod and Gun Club — a non-profit organization that promotes outdoor recreation, fishing and hunting — partnered with the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria to present the District of Kitimat a report outlining a framework of local bylaws that would ensure industrial development doesn’t negatively impact environmental health.

“We’re really in the midst of this gold rush, this energy industrial boom,” Mike Langegger, president of the rod and gun club, said in an interview. “There’s a host of concerns and many of these projects are looking at potentially expanding … outside of the current industrial zone right into some really key habitat areas.”

Langegger stressed that members of the rod and gun club are not anti-industry, but they are concerned about the cumulative impacts that increased industrial development will have on an already heavily impacted ecosystem.

“Not having bylaws and proper provisions in place can and will have a very negative impact on fish and wildlife [and the] lifestyle and culture of our community,” he said.

Deborah Curran, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre and supervising lawyer for the report, told The Narwhal the municipality has the legal means to work with industry in a way that supports and promotes development while making sure environmental values are protected.

“My view is that no local government in British Columbia … uses even 80 per cent of their environmental protection powers,” she said in an interview, adding that she has spent over 20 years working on municipal law. “There is a vast untapped potential within a pro-growth legal regime that local governments can tap into and do a way better job of [protecting] all these things that we know we need in order to have healthy ecosystems.”

The report, which Langegger presented to the District of Kitimat on March 1, outlines key recommendations including strategies for how, when and where the municipality approves industrial development. He said the town has an existing community plan, which identifies a need to manage ecosystem health and protect biodiversity but lacks the tools to do so.

“We have to start putting fish, wildlife habitat, ecosystems and biodiversity higher on the priority scale within all our governments, whether it’s municipal, provincial or federal,” Langegger said. “Quite frankly, we’re at a point now where we’re in a crisis, and we shouldn’t be here.”

The report recommends that Kitimat prioritize ecosystem connectivity by creating a green infrastructure network. The community plan includes goals to support walking and cycling corridors but it doesn’t acknowledge the need to prevent habitat fragmentation, which imperils wildlife and degrades ecosystem health.

The report also suggests the district develop and implement growth management policies that would encourage any new proposals to make use of existing industrial infrastructure and land.

Much of Kitimat’s current industrial development does this. For example, LNG Canada is building its $40 billion natural gas liquefaction and export facility on the site of Kitimat’s former methanol and ammonia plant. A pair of proposed LNG facilities — Kitimat LNG and Cedar LNG — would also be built on existing industrial land. According to the community plan, there are 985 hectares of undeveloped land in the industrial area and Langegger said there are also brownfield sites, which are old industrial sites no longer operating.

According to a statement provided to The Narwhal by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, redeveloping brownfield sites has a host of challenges.

“Brownfield redevelopment is a challenge in many small and rural communities because the cost of assessing and, if necessary, remediating sites in these areas often exceeds the value of the property.”

But municipalities can encourage development that reclaims brownfield sites by providing incentives such as property tax abatement, and the province said there are various sources of funding that support communities, including through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Curran said that’s not enough.

“It’s just easier to develop on a greenfield site or in an estuary or something like that,” she said. “The question is, how do you create incentives or say, ‘No, we’re not going to rezone any areas to allow new industrial development — you need to locate in those existing areas.’ ”

A growth management bylaw could establish clear guidelines for the municipality to ensure the existing industrial zone is fully developed before any undeveloped land is cleared to support new projects.

Kitimat’s industrial, residential and commercial areas were not created organically, like most communities in Canada. The town is a planned community, built on the back of industry when Alcan set up its aluminum smelter in the valley in the 1950s.

“Kitimat is unique in that we exist to support and service industry — we are not a resort town,” Mayor Phil Germuth said during council discussions following the presentation.

Lani Gibson, a councillor with the district, told The Narwhal she worries that the report, which she described as a gift to the municipality, will be left to gather dust. She said the local government needs to have a robust legal framework to address increased industrial activity before it overruns the community.

“Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal when there was an economic slump here, but now that there is activity, it highlights for us that we are not remotely prepared to assess these projects and ensure that they go in the right places,” she said in an interview. She added that the goal is to find balance and ensure industrial development doesn’t negate future economic opportunities such as tourism, recreation and forestry.

The municipality agreed to discuss the report later this year and consider implementing some of the recommendations when it conducts its next review and update of the community plan, which would start in the spring of 2022 at the earliest. But district staff cautioned the process could take two to three years to complete.

“We need to have a discussion and say, ‘Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ ” Gibson said. “If it’s just too offensive to people to talk about a hard line that [industry] can’t go beyond, then we don’t do that one. But we should still be adopting a whole bunch of the other stuff.”

Germuth told The Narwhal in an interview that the council also received a letter from the Kitimat Economic Development Association, stating its opposition to the green bylaws report.

“We have to wait — we’ve got to look at both sides of the story,” he said. “We have to make sure that we’re not cutting ourselves off at the knees, so to speak. We need to make sure that we’re not going to limit options in the future.”

According to Langegger, if the council waits to implement some of the report’s recommendations until the community plan review is completed, it could be too late to protect important habitat like the Goose Creek wetland, where Pacific Traverse Energy proposes to build a 300-car railyard as part of its plans to set up a 1.25 million tonne per year propane export facility. The company would connect the railyard to a marine terminal it would build on the shores of Douglas Channel via a 15 kilometre pipeline.

Langegger noted the project would include developing land above the town’s only source of drinking water and allowing it to proceed would set a dangerous precedent for permitting industry to sprawl beyond the prescribed zone.

“Instead of having industry to the south of the community and wild places to the north and surrounding us, we’re just going to be this community surrounded by smokestacks.”

He said the members of the rod and gun club aren’t opposed to the company setting up shop in Kitimat but they want the company to find an alternative location.

Gibson said the company has yet to submit a request for rezoning the land, which means the local government has an opportunity to adopt bylaws now, instead of reacting on a case-by-case basis.

“You don’t allow a shopping mall in the middle of a residential neighbourhood,” she said. “This is the same thing.”

Last fall, the Haisla Nation Council signed a partnership agreement with the company to support its proposed Cedar LNG export terminal. The Narwhal requested interviews with Pacific Traverse Energy and the Haisla Council but did not receive a response.

Langegger, like many others in Kitimat, grew up hunting and fishing in the surrounding landscape after his parents relocated to the community in the 1950s to work for the new Alcan aluminum smelter.

While locals are concerned about the cumulative effects of Kitimat’s increasing industrial activity on the community’s health and surrounding environment, the rod and gun club is focused on preventing any further impacts to fish and wildlife habitat. Langegger said habitat is key.

“When you talk to scientists and biologists, residents [and] guide outfitters, there is one underlining factor that’s really impacting our fish and wildlife: loss of habitat, degradation of habitat and fracturing of habitat.”

An unlikely coalition between the rod and gun club and two local environmental groups — Douglas Channel Watch and the Kitimat Valley Naturalists — emerged to voice concerns about the proposed propane export facility.

“It really doesn’t matter if you want to hunt and fish or take photos, if the habitat’s not there you’re not going to get in it,” Elizabeth Thorne, an active member of both environmental groups, told The Narwhal in an interview.

She said while the naturalists and the rod and gun club members don’t always see eye-to-eye on issues, they agree that Goose Creek and other important local watersheds should be protected for other uses, like ecotourism.

“I am hoping that with patience, we can point out that there are jobs to be made in a non-industrial way and they can figure out how to put the railyard somewhere else over on the industrial area.”

She added that the groups are exploring economic opportunities for the second-growth forest, which the proposed project would cut down to clear land for the railyard.

Langegger said he’s grateful for the support of the Environmental Law Centre and for the alliance with the environmental groups.

“We’ve all come to that conclusion that if we don’t work together for fish and wildlife, well, we’re all going to lose.”

Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Narwhal