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Pieces of the Trans Mountain Pipeline project sit in a storage lot outside of Abbotsford, B.C. on June 6, 2021. An ongoing expansion project, scheduled to be finished by the end of next year, will triple the capacity of the existing pipeline.

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The Canada Energy Regulator has approved a change to the route of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, ending a dispute with a First Nation in British Columbia that threatened the project’s construction schedule.

The Coldwater Indian Band objected to the original route along a section through the Coldwater Valley, east of Vancouver between Hope and Kamloops, over fears that it would threaten an aquifer that is the community’s main source of drinking water. The band called for the company to move the planned pipeline several kilometres to the west.

Trans Mountain, a Crown corporation, warned more than a year ago that the Coldwater band’s objection meant a significant stretch of the expansion project was “frozen” and could jeopardize the construction schedule if it wasn’t dealt with quickly. Trans Mountain later applied to adopt the band’s preferred route, known as the west alternative, which the regulator has now approved.

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“I’m very excited,” Chief Lee Spahan of the Coldwater band said in an interview. “It’s like they are saying, ‘Okay, we’re finally listening to you and what your concerns and what your issues are.’”

The change will affect 18 kilometres of pipeline, and adds four kilometres and two river crossings to the route.

Pembina Pipeline joins Indigenous effort to buy Trans Mountain

The Commission of the Canada Energy Regulator announced the approval last week after holding hearings in May. In accompanying orders also released last week, the commission said there had been adequate consultations with affected First Nations and that it did not receive any formal objections to the revised route.

Trans Mountain issued a statement welcoming the approval of the revised route.

The expansion project will triple the capacity of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries oil and refined products from the Edmonton area to an export terminal near Vancouver and refineries in Washington State. The $12.6-billion expansion is scheduled to be finished by the end of next year.

Construction work was put on hold in 2018, after the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the pipeline project’s approval, ruling Ottawa had failed to adequately consult First Nations or consider the risk to southern resident killer whales.

The government held a new round of consultations and did more work on the marine risk. Cabinet approved the expansion for the second time in 2019 – a decision the Federal Court of Appeal later upheld. The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear an appeal from several First Nations, including the Coldwater band, last year.

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The regulator granted hearings to dozens of landowners, First Nations and local governments to voice objections to the route, primarily in B.C. To date, about 97 per cent of the detailed route has been approved.

Mr. Spahan said the regulator’s approval of the revised route satisfies the band’s objections to the expansion, although he added that Trans Mountain and the federal government have not responded to concerns about the existing pipeline.

The Chief said his band’s agreement with Trans Mountain on the section of pipeline that currently runs through Coldwater’s territory is up for renegotiation, but the federal government hasn’t responded to his requests to begin those talks.

“Our membership is frustrated because Canada has to deal with us on that first easement, the first agreement,” he said.

“We need to sit down and negotiate those terms and they refused to come to the table.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada spokesperson Leslie Michelson said in a statement the department “continues to work closely with Coldwater Chief and Council and their advisors,” but declined to comment on specifics.

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“No agreement has expired, the easement for the existing pipeline remains valid,” the statement said.

Trans Mountain said agreements related to the existing pipeline are an issue for the federal government.

“The rights to operate the existing Trans Mountain line through the Coldwater Valley remain valid and we have agreed to discuss future operations with the Coldwater Band,” the Crown corporation said in a statement. ”The historical indenture is a matter between the government of Canada and Coldwater.”

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