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Trans Mountain is asking the Canada Energy Regulator to split the Coldwater hearing to deal with the Coquihalla portions of the route first while work continues on a hydrogeological study assessing the potential impact on the aquifer.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Trans Mountain Corp. is warning that regulatory hearings related to objections from two First Nations groups in British Columbia could delay construction along hundreds of kilometres of its pipeline expansion project.

The Crown corporation is asking the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) to expedite those hearings, requested by the Coldwater Indian Band and the S’ólhTéméxw Stewardship Alliance, for segments of the route east of Vancouver and into the Coquihalla region.

Both groups have filed statements of opposition, prompting the CER to order detailed route hearings to assess their concerns and determine whether any changes need to be made to the route to address them. The actual hearings have not been scheduled.

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“We are asking the CER to prioritize its consideration of the detailed route in this area, as we have done in other segments along the route,” Trans Mountain said in a statement. “We are not seeking any exemptions or exceptions from CER requirements, as the CER can approve parts of a pipeline route on a case-by-case basis.”

The S’ólhTéméxw Stewardship Alliance, or STSA, which represents 15 Indigenous communities, filed a statement of opposition that says the pipeline route threatens culturally significant sites such as burial grounds and poses a risk to aquifers that feed the communities’ drinking water.

Trans Mountain sent a letter to the regulator late last month asking that the STSA’s hearing, which covers 205 kilometres of the route, be dealt with as soon as possible; it suggests a timeline of mid-March. The letter says construction in that area had been scheduled to start in April, but says with a prompt hearing it could begin in June.

No one from the S’ólhTéméxw Stewardship Alliance was available to comment.

The corporation’s letter also raises concerns about a statement of opposition filed by the Coldwater Indian Band, which has been granted a detailed route hearing. The letter says 73 kilometres of the expansion route is “frozen” while Coldwater’s objections move through the process.

The Coldwater band argues that Trans Mountain and the government have failed to adequately study the risks to the community’s aquifer. Among the 156 conditions imposed on Trans Mountain is a requirement to produce a hydrogeological study assessing the potential impact on the aquifer.

Trans Mountain is asking the CER to split the Coldwater hearing to deal with the Coquihalla portions of the route first while work continues on that study, which must be filed six months before construction can begin in the valley.

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The band’s lawyer, Matthew Kirchner, said the tight timeline facing Trans Mountain now is the result of previous failures to consult with Coldwater and properly study the potential impact on the community’s drinking water. He said the band has repeatedly made the same arguments in court, including a Federal Court of Appeal case that halted construction in 2018 and in a subsequent case that was heard last month.

He said the band doesn’t necessarily oppose the pipeline going through the valley but it wants proper studies to determine the potential risk.

“If they had listened to Coldwater in 2015, they would not have any of these problems,” he said. “This is entirely a problem of their own making. In the 21st century, if there’s anything that hits at the heart of repairing relationship with First Nations and reconciliation, it’s drinking water on reserve.”

He said the band opposes the idea of splitting the process in two. First, he said that would force the band to shoulder the costs of two separate hearings that could be dealt with at the same time.

More importantly, he said, approving construction on the segment immediately before the pipeline enters the Coldwater Valley would only make it inevitable that the portion of the route in the valley would need to be approved, as well.

“It just gives the project huge momentum,” he said.

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Roughly two-thirds of the route has been approved. Dozens of landowners, First Nations and local governments have been granted detailed route hearings, primarily on the three westernmost segments in B.C.

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