04/02/2012 07:31 EDT | Updated 06/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Northern Gateway Pipeline Hearings In Limbo As Rowdy Welcome Unsettles Review Panel For Enbridge Project

BELLA BELLA, B.C. - Public hearings examining the proposed $5.5 billion Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB) Northern Gateway pipeline project were put on hold Monday amid safety concerns raised by the members of the federally-appointed review panel, says coastal B.C.'s Heiltsuk First Nation.

But a National Energy Board spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of the three-member joint review panel that is hearing public submissions about the pipeline project, said concerns about logistics at the central coast community of Bella Bella and not security were behind the meeting's cancellation.

"That's not the panel's view," NEB spokeswoman Kristen Higgins said from Calgary.

"They were working out some logistical issues with the community leadership today," she said. "That's what they are working on. They are meeting with community leadership to figure out what's the best way to receive the oral, traditional knowledge of the Heiltsuk Nation."

The joint review panel, which is holding hearings across Alberta and British Columbia for at least the next 14 months, is scheduled to be in Bella Bella until Thursday.

Heiltsuk Chief Coun. Marilyn Slett said in a statement negotiations are underway to ensure her band members can address the review panel and the panel members are comfortable in receiving the information.

"We are working to ensure this process goes forward with respect and dignity and our community and its allies will continue to seek peaceful means of expressing our position to the joint review panel," said her statement.

The statement said security measures have been a critical part of the logistical planning for the Bella Bella hearings, including communicating with the RCMP to ensure a peaceful process.

RCMP Const. Lesley Smith said from Prince George there have been no incidents to report from Bella Bella with regards to the pipeline hearings.

Slett said Sunday the Heiltsuk received a notice about the cancellation of Monday's meeting from the joint panel shortly after members Sheila Leggett, Kenneth Bateman and Hans Matthews arrived at the Bella Bella airport.

She said the panel members said they "feel they are not in a safe environment."

Placard-carrying opponents to the pipeline were at the airport when the panel members arrived Sunday. Slett said the panel members did not attend a community welcoming gathering later in the day.

Higgins would not confirm Slett's comments that the panel members did not feel safe after the reception they received in Bella Bella.

Higgins said logistical issues related to the presentation of evidence in the community about 300 kilometres south of Prince Rupert are being reviewed before any decision is made to restart the hearings.

But Higgins would not confirm local comments that the panel members were uncomfortable with the reception they received in Bella Bella.

A terse update posted on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency web page dealing with the Northern Gateway review panel said the three members would not be sitting on Monday.

North Coast New Democrat Gary Coons, who represents Bella Bella, said he arrived on the same flight Sunday as the review panel members and did not sense they were concerned with the reception they received.

But he said they were greeted with a throng of passionate opponents to the pipeline project.

"Probably 300 people, community people, a very respectful, peaceful protest," said Coons. "I was somewhat surprised and shocked that the panel would have felt there was a perception of security issues."

He said he saw aboriginal leaders and RCMP members meeting Monday at the community hall where the meetings were scheduled to be held until Thursday.

Pipeline opponents also lined the road from the airport to the village to demonstrate their concerns about the pipeline.

Local students, with the support of the Bella Bella Community School, are participating in a 48-hour hunger strike to draw attention to their opposition, Coons said.

Slett said the airport reception was emotional and powerful, but remained respectful and peaceful.

"We want to let them know that they are completely safe in our community," she said. "It is really offensive to have to go over to convey this to the joint review panel. We are a peaceful people."

The panel has been met with protests since the hearings started in January in Kitimat, but no dates were cancelled until Monday.

The joint review panel is assessing the potential environmental impacts of the proposed project and reviewing the project's application under both the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the National Energy Board Act.

The panel is scheduled to conduct 18 months of public hearings across British Columbia and Alberta and will decide on whether the project is in the public interest.

The $5.5-billion Enbridge project includes plans to construct a 1,100-kilometre twin pipeline to transport Alberta oil from the Edmonton-area to a port in Kitimat, in northwest B.C., for shipment overseas.

Environmental, aboriginal and social action groups say the risks of a pipeline rupture or oil tanker spill are too great, noting more than 200 tankers would have to navigate the treacherous waters of the Douglas Channel, south of Kitimat, every year before reaching open sea.

The federal government says the pipeline will bring jobs and prosperity to Canada as Alberta oil reaches new markets in the powerhouse economies of Asia, including China.

Last week's federal budget included plans to streamline environmental review processes, which led Coons to speculate that Ottawa may want to speed up the Northern Gateway hearings, which are slated to hear more than 4,300 presentations.

Prior to the start of the hearings, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the Northern Gateway pipeline is in the national interest.

- By Dirk Meissner in Victoria

Also on HuffPost

Top 10 Most Polluting Countries