Karen Tam Wu: B.C. needs permanent solution for threatened Sacred Headwaters

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      By Karen Tam Wu

      In a mystical place called the Sacred Headwaters, three of B.C.’s wildest rivers—the Nass, Skeena, and Stikine—are born. These three magnificent rivers are a only one- or two-day walk from each other—a rare phenomenon in nature. The Sacred Headwaters is a culturally significant area for First Nations. It is here where Royal Dutch Shell proposes to extract coal-bed methane.

      Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of the Sacred Headwaters. The region isn’t on the Alberta-B.C. road map folded up in my glove compartment. It’s another five to seven hours north off the map—depending on who’s driving. The Skeena is the second longest river in B.C. The Grand Canyon of the Stikine is a run attempted by only the world’s most skilled and daring kayakers, who must navigate turbulent hydraulics, like the Hole That Ate Chicago. The Nass, Skeena, and Stikine are among the most productive salmon-bearing rivers in our province. The Sacred Headwaters is the jackpot for wildlife fanatics like me. Most of Canada’s iconic animals—moose, caribou, wolves, mountain goats, and grizzly bears—roam undisturbed. This place is the farthest I can imagine being from a decent soy latte.

      Due to threats from Shell’s proposed plans to develop CBM, the Sacred Headwaters topped the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia’s 2010 most endangered rivers list.

      Coal-bed methane is a natural gas, primarily used for household heating. To extract methane found in coal seams 100 to 1,000 metres underground, Shell would need to pump groundwater out. A mix of water, sand, and an industry-trade-secret recipe of chemicals, like benzene, MBTE, and other hydrocarbons, is often injected into the ground to fracture coal seams to free the methane. Each well could produce between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of wastewater high in salts and chemicals like arsenic and ammonia. Where the injected chemicals would flow underground is unpredictable. Between 1,500 and 10,000 wells would be drilled for production. A pad roughly the size of a baseball field would be constructed for each well, and three-metre-wide roads would be built to connect each well.

      Salmon migrate 610 kilometres up the Skeena to spawn in the Sacred Headwaters. Coal-bed methane would desecrate this ecological marvel and transform it into an industrial checkerboard. Pollution- and sediment-laden water would poison fish, clog their gills, and suffocate their eggs.

      Shell began its exploration phase by quietly putting in three test wells in 2004 and planned to drill 14 more by 2008. When residents from the Nass, Skeena, and Stikine watersheds caught wind of Shell’s plans, First Nations, ranchers, and environmentalists united. Destruction of the rivers that bring the fish that define their cultures and traditions is unthinkable. Local residents blockaded, rallied in the streets, and held public summits. In 2008, the communities passed resolutions opposing the development of coal-bed methane in the Sacred Headwaters.

      In December 2008, the B.C. government heeded the opposition and placed a temporary ban on Shell’s drilling. The two- to four-year moratorium would allow time for First Nations and local communities to gather “sufficient information” about CBM development and to obtain water quality data “sufficient” to determine “potential” impacts of CBM.

      Last week, Minister of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources Blair Lekstrom confirmed on Global TV news that 2012 would be the expiration of the moratorium. The government’s imposing of the initial ban in 2008 is laudable, but two more years will not make CBM development more palatable to local communities. In two more years, it will still be sacrilegious to subject these intertwined ecosystems of pristine rivers, thriving salmon stocks, and bountiful wildlife to coal-bed methane development in the Sacred Headwaters.

      On a recent trip up north crossing the frozen Stikine, the emerald Nass, and the mighty Skeena, I was beside myself with excitement when we crossed paths with caribou. I was reminded that these wild spaces are our sanctuaries, and are part of our national identity and culture. It’s time we treated them with the reverence they deserve.

      I urge you, Minister Lekstrom, to find a permanent solution for the Sacred Headwaters.

      Karen Tam Wu is an energy campaigner for ForestEthics in Vancouver. ForestEthics is a nonprofit with staff in Canada and the United States that recognizes that individual people can be mobilized to create positive environmental change—and so can corporations. Armed with this philosophy, ForestEthics has secured the protection of more than 65 million acres of endangered forests.