VANCOUVER — Barbara Gard calls her three-hectare property, nestled below the forested peak of Sumas Mountain, a “miniature Stanley Park.” Its lush trees and flowing creek reminded her of Vancouver’s majestic park, and she immediately knew she wanted to call it home.
But she said her peaceful retreat in Abbotsford, B.C., now feels more like a nightmare. Gard is among thousands of landowners along the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion route who have not yet granted the Crown corporation access, and she said her dealings with the project’s owners over the years have shattered her mental health.
“It’s caused me emotional devastation,” said Gard, a 64-year-old school psychologist on medical leave from work. “They are killing me through stress and legal fees.”
Numerous hurdles remain before significant construction can begin on the massive project. Trans Mountain Corp. has not signed agreements with 33 per cent of landowners, no part of the detailed route has been approved, about half of the necessary permits are outstanding and it must meet dozens of conditions with the Canada Energy Regulator, formerly the National Energy Board.
Further, it faces resistance in southwest B.C., where landowners are digging in their heels, Indigenous groups are filing legal challenges and protesters are planning to ramp up activity.
The federal Liberal government bought the pipeline for $4.5 billion last year. The parliamentary budget officer has said that if the expansion is not complete by the end of 2021, it would be fair to conclude the government overpaid for the asset.
The government said the expanded pipeline will now be operational by mid-2022.
“If all goes according to the government’s plan and hopes, then that is a realistic timeline,” said David Wright, an assistant law professor with the University of Calgary. “But there’s the significant caveat that not a lot has gone as hoped or planned from the government’s perspective in the last couple years.”
There are more than 2,500 tracts of private, Crown or Indigenous land to which Trans Mountain must gain access to build the expansion. As of July, some 1,730 — or 67 per cent — of owners had signed agreements granting the corporation entry.
Eighty-three per cent of landowners in Alberta and eastern B.C. have signed, but in the B.C. Interior and Fraser Valley, that number drops to 54 per cent. In the Lower Mainland, just 14 per cent of landowners have signed agreements.
The current Trans Mountain pipeline already runs through Gard’s property. Her frustration with the pipeline’s owners began in 2011, when she alleges workers sheared some 232 trees on her land, 80 of which they cut down entirely. The corporation denied any wrongdoing and the debate over the damage has dragged on for eight years, she said.
Gard said the corporation has not offered her fair compensation for the risk that the expansion poses to her property’s delicate ecosystem or has it explained how it will restore vegetation and protect wildlife. The process feels extremely unbalanced, where she’s facing off against the corporation’s trained negotiators and legal team, she added.
Robin Scory, another landowner in the Fraser Valley who has not yet signed an agreement, said that the pipeline’s owners have offered him “lowball” sums that are only a fraction of the property’s value. Streams on his land run directly into the Fraser River and the corporation has not explained how it would mitigate the impacts of a spill, he said.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen. I’m not against the pipeline and I’m not a ‘pay me millions of dollars’ kind of guy, but it’s just so badly run,” Scory said.
Trans Mountain said its key objective is to treat each landowner along the route fairly and it bases its compensation on a formula related to market value, but the landowner retains ownership. The corporation also strives to be a leader in emergency preparedness and has plans for quick response in the event of any spill, it said.
In cases where Trans Mountain can’t settle with a landowner, the Canadian Energy Regulator provides a process to address differences of opinion, it said, and the regulator may ultimately grant right of entry to allow the corporation to build the pipeline.
Before a court decision last August halted the project, a process was underway to confirm the detailed route of the expansion. After the project was approved a second time in June, the regulator said the corporation must redo that process.
It means none of the detailed route has been approved. Trans Mountain has begun notifying local communities of its proposed route and is waiting for statements of opposition from affected people over 30-day periods. The energy regulator then reviews the statements and decides — segment-by-segment — whether detailed route hearings will be held and when.
The lack of route approval is already having an impact. Trans Mountain noted in an Aug. 19 letter to the regulator that it must begin construction of the Burnaby Mountain tunnel portal immediately and earth works must occur prior to the start of the peak rainy season in November. The regulator responded that it could not start work because the route is not approved.
“It’s hard to see the (detailed route approval) happening before the rainy season that they’ve cited,” said Wright.
The corporation has begun work on its two terminals in Burnaby. But Sarah Buehler, a spokeswoman for protest group Protect the Inlet, said activists aren’t staging demonstrations right now because major construction has not begun.
“At this stage, there is not enough significant construction going on for us to try to stop it. … When the time comes, you’ll probably see something like Burnaby Mountain in 2014,” she said, referring to protests that drew hundreds and led to arrests.
Trans Mountain also isn’t allowed to start work on its Edmonton terminal because a variance is still being processed and some pre-construction conditions haven’t been met. The company said it plans to begin work at the site this month and will soon start construction along the right-of-way between Edmonton and Edson.