The Waters of Telkwa

Jim Simonelli talks about the threat to the life blood of his community.

When Jim Simonelli opens his door and looks out over the Telkwa River he sees an area of pristine natural beauty. Jim is surrounded by snow-capped mountain ranges and a myriad of lakes and streams. As a fishing guide, Jim earns much of his livelihood from the salmon and steelhead spawning in the streams that feed the nearby Bulkley River. “It hasn’t been a great year for guiding” he confides. “The river is low, and the steelhead population has been affected by the sockeye fishery which opened early in September.”

But a single off year isn’t what has him worried. Jim’s property is located on a proposed tenure for coalbed methane development.
Jim is one of the Bulkley Valley residents with a lot to lose if the government grants a tenure to extract coalbed methane to Outrider Energy, a Calgary company that wants to drill here. “The oil and gas industry is young in BC, and there aren’t enough safeguards in place… There is a lot of risk and very little benefit to local residents”.

There is a lot that makes Jim love living in Telkwa. He proudly proclaims that the crystal clear water from his well is better than any bottled water. “Neither the company nor the government can guarantee me that my well water won’t be contaminated, ” he says. “They haven’t even done the baseline studies.”

Water Quality

The effect of coalbed methane extraction on water quality is one of Jim and his community’s chief concerns. The methane is held in coal deposits by water pressure. To extract it, companies pump water from that seam, then compress the freed gas and pipe it to market. The waste water is often highly saline and toxic. It is the disposal of this water that worries Bulkley Valley residents. The extraction process has also been known to lower the water table in an area and could pose a problem for wells.

Outrider Energy promises to try and mitigate the effects of waste-water disposal by reinjecting the water into the ground rather than allowing it to flow into fish-bearing streams as is permitted by the regulations. Neither the company nor the government will guarantee this response would prevent contamination of streams or seepage into drinking well water. “This is the ‘new-and-improved’ method, but it’s unproven,” says Jim. Coalbed methane operations have never yet co-existed with salmon and trout habitat. “Why would we want to risk our fishery for little or no reward?”

Poor Consultation

The government consultation process is a source of frustration for many Bulkley Valley residents, who feel the government is ignoring their concerns and pushing coalbed methane regardless of the community’s view. These sentiments came to a head at a public forum organized by Citizens Concerned About Coalbed Methane (see article next page). Members of the community opposed the project, citing water contamination, landscape degradation, and a flawed public process. The agitated crowd also demanded to know whether the decision to say no to the development rested with them. Yvette Wells, the assistant deputy minister of marketing, aboriginal and community relations, represented the government. She evaded the question, saying the decision was for cabinet.

“The government seems intent on going ahead regardless of what we say,” Jim commented. “The tenure they’re giving out means a company has a right to put a well on my land. I can’t say no.”

Communities say no

There may be a good reason that the government is reluctant to engage the community in meaningful consultation. The more people know about coalbed methane extraction, the worse it looks. In addition to the risk to drinking water and fish habitat, coalbed methane has been a major blemish on the landscape of other regions. Extensive networks of roads, pipelines and noisy compressors operating 24/7 are required to extract the methane and get it to market. Even relatively small test wells drilled in areas such as Fernie have left a mountain of mud and devastation.

Development of coalbed methane in BC has been stalled by local communities. In September, Shell was forced to abandon its coalbed methane exploration for the second year running due to the continued resistance of the Tahltan. Fernie and Hat Creek have been successful in preventing the granting of tenures. In 2003 the Union of BC Municipalities called for a province-wide moratorium on coalbed methane until stronger regulations were implemented.

Jim explains what he sees as a raw deal for the community, with profits going to Calgary, taxes collected by Victoria, and the local area left with a big mess. He complains further how the terms of the tenure don’t require Outrider to post a bond against any potential damage.

I ask Jim what he loves about living in Telkwa. The natural beauty, the down to earth people, the steelhead run; all compete to be top of his list. “If the development is granted, though, we’ll be leaving… My wife feels the same way.” Jim’s wife is a native of the Bulkley Valley and has lived there all her life. Jim is approaching his twelfth year in the area.

Long may they remain. 

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