The province is granting permits to allow the development of a natural gas storage site in Colchester County to proceed, but two First Nations leaders are saying it’s too soon.

Energy Minister Michel Samson made the announcement Thursday, saying the project is ready to take the next step following “thorough scientific assessment, various consultations and amendments to the project plans.”

“Government believes the project is safe and does not threaten the environment,” said Samson.

The permits and industrial approval clear the way for Alton Natural Gas Storage LP to begin Phase 1 of its storage project, which will see salt caverns flooded with water from the Shubenacadie River estuary and the brine pumped back into the estuary and into the river. The project still requires an operating permit and approval for surface-level building. A separate process is required to approve a pipeline that would connect to the caverns.

While the project has the tentative support of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs and the Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn negotiations office, it lacks support from the First Nations in closest proximity to the project: the Sipekne’katik Band and Millbrook First Nation.

Samson said the government takes seriously the duty to consult and engaged in 18 months of thorough consultations.

“I do believe that we have gone through all of our duties when it comes to the consultation process on this project. In this case, we went above and beyond to ensure there was no rush on this.”

Millbrook Chief Bob Gloade disagreed.

“I’m not very pleased with the outcome,” Gloade said, adding that the process has been flawed for a while.

“They feel that they’ve met their obligation, but they have not satisfactorily answered the questions and concerns that we have raised.”

Topping the list of concerns is access to the fish in the river, which are used for both food and ceremonial purposes.

“This is the only river left in the province that has striped bass spawning,” said Gloade.

“This is the direct area where spawning occurs for striped bass  and it’s already on the endangered species list.  We’ve been waiting for the science information to be shared with us, which has not taken place.”

The Sipekne’katik Band council voted Thursday to leave the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs following the group’s decision to give a sign of approval for the project. Earlier this month, Sipekne’katik Chief Rufus Copage called on Premier Stephen McNeil to delay the process to allow for more consultation and community referendums in his community and Millbrook. That request was turned down.

Samson said the request for a referendum is not a part of the consultation process. The consultation process included additional work and changes at the request of Mi’kmaq leaders, said Samson, such as stopping the brining during peak spawning periods for 24 days, as opposed to the originally proposed 14.

“The duty to consult does not include a veto option for First Nations,” he said.

“We have a process that is in place in Nova Scotia, which has worked very well on numerous other projects.”

Samson said he called “a number of chiefs” the night before to inform them of Thursday’s announcement. Gloade was one of them; Copage was not.

“I had a number of calls to make and we simply ran out of time,” Samson said when asked why he didn’t call Copage.

“I think my last call was at nine o’clock last night.”

Copage said he would be reaching out for meetings with everyone involved in the project and a protest could follow. He wasn’t surprised Samson didn’t call him.

“I’m used to not being included,” said Copage.

“They can call the other chiefs if they want, but this is the Sipekne’katik district.”

The government says the project will save $17 million in energy costs, savings everyone will benefit from in some way as more universities and hospitals connect to natural gas. The storage caverns will allow Heritage Gas to benefit from buying gas at cheaper rates in the summer, as opposed to having to pay higher prices during peak demand cycles in the winter. The caverns’ capacity is about 20 days’ worth of supply at peak consumption time.

When it might actually happen, however, is another question.

And while the minister said monitoring data from the project will be made available and the approval requires the company to establish a community liaison committee, there are no commitments for how or with whom that information will actually be shared.

Jess Nieukerk, director of communications for AltaGas Ltd., said the company will start work on the dike by the river as soon as possible, with plans to begin the brining process this summer.

“Cavern formation can take anywhere between two to three years,” Nieukerk said.

“It’s a slow process, and you want to make sure you get the caverns to the correct size.”

The company will begin the regulatory process for the pipeline with hopes to begin construction in 2017, he said. Formal consultation with First Nations has already started on that aspect.

Nieukerk said the company is aware opposition to the project remains, and it will continue to work with people from the community. Details for sharing monitoring information might not be finalized, but Nieukerk said the company is committed to making it available “and that people have ready access to it.”

Art Redden, who has lived on the Shubenacadie River in Enfield for 37 years, said he has no faith in the project and the government’s ability to monitor the situation. He was present for Samson’s announcement.

“It’s another case of the fox guarding the hen house,” said Redden.

“I have no trust for it.  I don’t want to see the equivalent of 50 tandem truckloads of salt go in the river every day for the next three years.”