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A Kamloops resident passes by Trans Mountain pipeline right-of-way markings at the location where the pipeline expansion will cross the Thompson River in Kamloops, B.C. June 3, 2020.Dennis Owen/The Globe and Mail

Workers in Kamloops began construction on the Trans Mountain project this week, the first major step in British Columbia toward expanding the 1,150-kilometre pipeline that carries oil from just outside Edmonton to Burnaby.

Similar work has been under way for months in neighbouring Alberta. The B.C. construction starts amid pandemic health directives on physical distancing and an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada to cancel approvals for the oft-delayed $12.6-billion project, which the federal government bought in 2018.

Trans Mountain Corp. expects between 30 and 50 people will work on the project in Kamloops this month, reaching about 600 at peak construction in late summer or early fall.

Ian Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Trans Mountain, called the start “another key milestone” for the project that, when complete, will increase capacity from approximately 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day.

“It is good news for workers in the region and an important step forward on the path to building this critical piece of infrastructure,” he said in a statement.

Trans Mountain said it has worked with the Kamloops Accommodation Association to find local hotels and service providers that can meet the requirements of COVID-19 health measures, including food service, extra cleaning and a dedicated screening area for workers before they go to the site.

Three B.C. First Nations that oppose the expansion were critical of the decision to ram through construction while Canadians were being told to stay home and practice physical distancing to limit the spread of the contagion. Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage recently said now is the perfect time to build pipelines, because COVID-19 health directives would hamper protests.

In April, the Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Ts’elxwéyeqw Tribe, and Coldwater Indian Band said they would seek leave for a Supreme Court appeal against the project.

The Ts’elxwéyeqw Tribe has since withdrawn from the process. That leaves three groups opposing a Feb. 4 decision by the Federal Court of Appeal that cabinet’s approval of the pipeline project in June, 2019, was reasonable under the law. They argue that Indigenous consultation leading up to the second approval of the expansion project was inadequate.

Eugene Kung, a lawyer working with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation on the B.C. coast, told The Globe and Mail the First Nation intends to continue its fight and is awaiting a response from the court.

The final submissions from the three Indigenous groups were filed with the Supreme Court on May 14.

At the heart of the applications by the Indigenous groups is the question of whether consultations went far enough.

Each also references the Vavilov case – a decision from the Supreme Court in December that centred on the citizenship of children of Russian spies born in Canada. It set a new precedent in judicial review law in Canada, redefining how government decision-makers can be held accountable in the courts.

The Coldwater Band also worries the pipeline could affect drinking water from a local aquifer, and questioned whether the government and Trans Mountain did enough to address the issue. Trans Mountain argued in its response that “while safe on-reserve drinking water is undoubtedly a national concern, it is being addressed in this case through ongoing consultation and regulatory processes.”

Mr. Kung said there’s no set timeline for the court to make a decision on whether it will hear the case, but he is expecting word late this summer or early fall.

As the pipeline expansion heads west into B.C., Trans Mountain continues to sign benefit agreements with communities along the route.

To date, it has 19 agreements along 95 per cent of the pipeline route, generally to provide funds for things like education and training opportunities, new trails and park improvements.

An agreement between the city of Kamloops and Trans Mountain has earmarked $700,000 for community projects. Thompson Rivers University in the city will also get $500,000 over 20 years to fund awards for students in trades, social work, applied research and an environmental science graduate program.

The company has also signed a mutual benefits agreement with the local Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation to provide employment and business help to the community.

Chief Rosanne Casimir said in a statement the agreement would result in training, employment and contract opportunities for Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc members, and community infrastructure upgrades.

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