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southern ontario

Workers lay a natural gas pipeline in Dartmouth, N.S. in a file photo. The National Energy Board says it has strengthened regulations for oil and natural gas pipelines to make them safer.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Fewer than 200 interested parties have completed a 10-page application form asking the National Energy Board to accept their written comments about the reversal of a pipeline that would carry diluted Alberta oil sands bitumen across Southern Ontario and into Quebec.

That compares to the more than 9,000 letters that were written during the approvals process for the Northern Gateway pipeline that would transport the same material over 1,177 kilometres to a tanker port in Northern British Columbia.

But environmentalists say the relatively small number of applications related to Enbridge Inc.'s Line 9B does not suggest disinterest on the part of the public when it comes to the reversal of the 37-year-old pipeline, which now carries light crude through nearly 100 communities, including Toronto. Rather, they say, it is a reflection of the complexity of the process, which required anyone who wanted to voice an opinion to find the form on the National Energy Board (NEB) website, complete it, then send copies to both the board and Enbridge within a two-week window that closed on April 19.

"I am impressed that that many people were able to go through the process and figure out how to do it," said Adam Scott of Environmental Defence. "It's actually more than I was expecting in the incredibly short period of time allowed."

The applications, which are being used by the NEB for the first time on 639-kilometre Line 9B, are meant to restrict comments to those people who will be "directly affected or have relevant information or expertise." They were introduced after the federal Conservative government streamlined the process, complaining that the Northern Gateway approvals had been hijacked by radical environmentalists.

The NEB says it is now processing the 177 applications that were submitted by First Nations, community groups, municipalities, environmental organizations and private individuals and will decide within the next few weeks who will be permitted to write a letter.

One of the applicants was singer and songwriter Sarah Harmer, who lives north of Kingston, a couple of kilometres from the pipeline.

"I definitely wanted to get involved on behalf of my family because the pipeline goes right through our farm in Burlington [Ont.], and there's an existing quarry that's 1,200 metres away from the pipeline that's been blasting twice a week into the bedrock, so I think there's some legitimate concerns about the integrity of the line," Ms. Harmer said Friday in a telephone interview.

"This is a proposal to pump, at higher pressure, this diluted bitumen which is also akin to liquid sandpaper, and there are real corrosion issues with this stuff," she said. "We've seen it spilling in Kalamazoo [Mich.], we've seen it spilling in Arkansas just a few weeks ago, so it seems like a really bad idea."

Carole Léger-Kubeczek, a spokeswoman for the NEB, said the number of applications received from people who are interested in writing a letter about Line 9B is not out of line with the interest that has been expressed in previous pipeline projects. Many more people wrote letters about the Northern Gateway pipeline, Ms. Léger-Kubeczek said, "but it's also a much longer pipeline and this [Line 9B] is a pipeline that already exists, whereas Northern Gateway, it's a different situation."

Graham White, a spokesman for Enbridge, said the relatively small number of applications could be an indication that the project has more support than some critics would indicate.

"That makes sense given the considerable benefits the project will provide to the region in terms of supporting thousands of jobs, enhancing a basic service and ensuring that the people of the region have secure access to Canadian energy production and refined products," Mr. White said in an e-mail. "We have a little more than 2,400 landowners, tenants/occupants along that line, all of whom we maintain regular contact with so we can respond to any issues or concerns."

But Peter Julian, the natural resources critic for the federal New Democrats who also filled out an application, said the process is a "sad commentary" on the current state of public consultation.

"I don't know how citizens can actually be involved in the process at all, even the people in communities that are impacted," said Mr. Julian, "when it takes several days to pull everything together and mail it out, and serve Enbridge and do all of the things that the NEB is requiring because of the changes that the Harper government has brought in."