Richard Overstall feels he's been put in a no-win situation by both the National Energy Board's process and pipeline proponent Enbridge Northern Gateway.
The lawyer for the Smithers-based Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research doesn't feel he can adequately question Northern Gateway on its plans to build a $6.5 billion pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to Kitimat when the route keeps changing. Overstall and his organization are particularly interested in how a potential spill in the Morice River would impact the salmon population, but all the modeling Northern Gateway has done on the subject is for a pipeline route that will no longer exist in the coming weeks.
"Along the Morice River, that we're concerned about because of very high value salmon and steelhead habitat, they shifted the pipeline several kilometres to the south," Overstall said in an interview after questioning Northern Gateway witnesses for about two hours. "This may or may not be a good move, but we're now in the position of trying to test evidence of a pipeline location for which no evidence."
The route change has yet to officially be filed, but Northern Gateway has provided maps of where it will go. The company said the change was necessitated due to the sensitive nature of the region and after consultation with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as other concerned parties.
Overstall brought up his concerns during his cross-examination, but got little sympathy from Joint Review Panel (JRP) chairwoman Sheila Leggett. She said it's the responsibility of all interveners to keep up with new evidence as it's filed and its his duty to do his cross-examination on the evidence as it currently stands.
"Continue with the relevant questions you have for this panel," she told Overstall after asking him if he had any specific request of the JRP.
Outside the hearing room, Overstall said if Northern Gateway does provide specific evidence of the new route, he and other interveners won't have the chance to ask questions about it unless the rules are changed.
"Our turn at questioning with this panel ends some time [Thursday]," he said. "That evidence may be weeks, months away and unless the National Energy Board is going to open up this panel if and when this new evidence comes along, we can't test it."
The Northwest Institute is a science based group which looks at the impact major projects such as mines and pipelines can have on ecosystems and fish stocks. Biologist Dave Bustard, who works for the group, said the Northern Gateway project poses the biggest threat he's seen in 40 years.
"It has the highest risk to a very high-value resource," he said.
Bustard has provided evidence to the JRP and will be a witness later on the process. He's concerned not only about the impact a spill could have on fish in the Morice and other rivers, but also how any potential clean up activity could have long-lasting implications.
His study looked a 35-kilometre stretch of the river which includes spawning grounds and features numerous logjams. Bustard said if there was a spill, those logjams would likely be oiled, but said removing them during cleanup could do more harm than good.
"The logjams are key to the complexity of that reach," he said. "If they remove the logjams, it's our contention that the river could very well simplify. It could become straighter, it could become steeper and you lose all of the adjacent habitats that create the spawning habits for the fish in that reach."
Overstall will continue his questioning of the witnesses on Thursday and if he's able to finish before the end of the day the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union will go next.
The Kitimat Valley Naturalists, who hadn't been previously expected to question this panel had a request granted to be added to the list. They will be last on the list of interveners and will likely be up on Friday.