04/12/2014 08:30 EDT | Updated 06/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Northern Gateway pipeline proposal heads to vote in Kitimat today

One of the most divisive issues in Kitimat in a generation comes to a head today when up to 5,000 eligible voters cast their votes for or against Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline project.

- On mobile? Click here to view Northern Gateway Pipeline interactive 

- IN DEPTH | Northern Gateway Pipeline

More than 900 residents have already voted in advance polls on a question that has split the community.

"Neighbours won’t talk to neighbours," one local resident told CBC News, "and this is not going to go away for a long time."

Kitimat is the community most affected by the $6.5-billion project, because as the endpoint for the pipeline bringing bitumen from Alberta, it would house a marine terminal where the supertankers would load up.

The large ships would sail down the narrow Douglas Channel taking the Alberta crude to new markets in Asia.

- INTERACTIVE | Pipeline incident map

City council, which has so far tried to remain neutral, initiated the plebiscite to take the pulse of the community and has said the town's decision will influence its support for the project.

However, the plebiscite isn’t binding on the federal review panel, which has until June to decide if the Northern Gateway project proceeds.

Despite this, critics say Enbridge has raised the stakes by going on a spending spree with lots of advertising and open houses, prompting complaints the company is trying to buy votes.

Serious Concerns

Murray Minchin with Douglas Channel Watch claims Kitimat has serious concerns about the project's impact.

"The people in Kitimat just feel that this proposal is associated with way too many risks," he told CBC News.

However, Enbridge's Katherine Coutinho points out the project brings jobs and money to the town.

"It’s 188 families that will be impacted by these jobs and as I’ve said $5 million a year in property taxes is significant for local priorities and I think people see the value in that," she said.

Observers, like Michael Moore with the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, say the vote is especially important for Enbridge.

"They need a marker that’s on their side," says Moore. "They’ve certainly taken a lot of hits in the media and in the public arena, so they need something that says we really are respecting the rights of the people."

One group Enbridge has not been able to convince so far is the local Haisla First Nation. Dozens surprised Kitimat’s mayor by wearing 'No Enbridge'  T-shirts to one of her events.

However, most of them don’t live in the town and can’t vote in the plebiscite.