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Native band in northeast B.C. pushes for water licensing reform

Aerial photos of Nexen's b-77-H, 18 well pad site at Dilly Creek in the Horn River Basin. Nexen began drilling at the site in early July 2011. Nexen is actively drilling for shale gas in the north east region of British Columbia, Canada

Dave Olecko

Kanute Loe, an elder with a small native band in northeast British Columbia, measures the impact of the gas industry on the environment by looking at the water levels dropping in the streams and rivers he fishes.

"I spend a lot of my time in the bush. I travel the rivers … there's creeks that there's no water coming out of," he said Tuesday.

"All of a sudden we're having trouble catching fish … Our rivers are getting harder to navigate … it's almost like somebody drilled a hole in the bottom of the bathtub," Mr. Loe said in Vancouver at a news conference to express aboriginal concerns about increasing water extraction by industry.

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Sharleen Wildeman, chief of the Fort Nelson First Nation, said her band has grown alarmed at the growing needs of the gas industry, which draws water from streams, lakes and rivers. The water is mixed with sand and chemicals in a slurry that is injected deep under ground. The process, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, breaks up shale structures and releases gas deposits.

Ms. Wildeman, whose 800-member band is located near the booming Horn River gas fields, said industry in that area has 20 long-term water licence applications before the B.C. government. If those licences are approved, she said, it would authorize industry to withdraw "tens of billions of litres of water annually" for up to 40 years, for use in fracking operations.

"We are extremely concerned about a massive giveaway of water from our rivers and lakes, without any credible process identifying what the long-term impacts will be," she said.

Ms. Wildeman is upset with a government consultation process "that has stalled," and she said the band is demanding five conditions be met before any new water licences are approved.

She said the band wants baseline environmental studies done before licences are issued; multi-year development plans filed in advance to identify proposed water sources, gas-well sites, roads and camps; environmental plans that cap water withdrawals at ecologically acceptable levels; protection of culturally significant land and water resources, and an agreement that environmental impact monitoring and enforcement will be done by an independent body.

"Failure to embrace these fundamental reforms will lead to increasing yet avoidable conflict," Ms. Wildeman said.

Last June, the Fort Nelson First Nation signed a gas consultation agreement with the B.C. government, but Kathi Dickie, a band councillor, said that deal has not come in to practice yet. Meanwhile, she said, industry is forging ahead with development in the region, and water licences that could be in place for decades are awaiting government approval.

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"We feel we've been pushed into a corner," Ms. Dickie said.

She said the band called the news conference in the hopes of drawing attention to an issue that has made her community increasingly frustrated, but which has not got much attention in urban centres. "We need your help," she said, addressing her comments to the general public. "We need people to pressure the government."

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said provincial and national native organizations support the band's call for greater restrictions on water licences.

"We'll do whatever it takes to stop this travesty," he said of the industry demands for water.

Mike Forgo, vice-president of stakeholder relations for Encana Corp., said his company is applying for one long-term licence in the area and would like to see the band and the government work things out.

"Certainly we'd like to see a better relationship between the Fort Nelson First Nation and the Crown," he said, adding he didn't know what efforts the government has made in consulting with the band.

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Brennan Clarke, a spokesman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, said in an e-mail the government is in the process of negotiating an agreement with the band that would deal with long-term water licences and other issues.

"We are hopeful that we will reach an agreement soon," he said, giving assurances the government is properly regulating the use of water. "All water licence applications are subjected to a thorough technical and scientific review by ministry staff and other relevant government agencies to ensure sound decisions."

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