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Officials from Vaudreuil-Soulanges are denying TransCanada the permits for geological testing of the Ottawa River floorbed, citing concerns of an oil spill.TODD KOROL/Reuters

TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East project is encountering a major logjam at the Ottawa River, with Quebec officials refusing to issue permits to the company that would allow it to determine how to cross the waterway – citing Husky Energy Inc.'s spill in a Saskatchewan river last month as a troubling warning sign.

In filings with the National Energy Board, TransCanada said its usual method for river crossing was "not feasible" at its preferred Ottawa River crossing site, near the junction with the St. Lawrence River. It had promised to provide an alternative scenario this summer, but that work is delayed because county officials from Vaudreuil-Soulanges are denying the company the permits for geological testing of the riverbed.

TransCanada has not adequately communicated its plans, Raymond Malo, assistant director-general for Vaudreuil-Soulanges, said in an interview, and local government officials remain worried about the potential for a disastrous spill into the river, which would contaminate drinking water for millions of residents in the Montreal region.

"What happened in Saskatchewan is the proof [that spills] can happen," Mr. Malo said. "We say, if it happens, how will you intervene, in winter with three feet of ice, in a snowstorm? It will take hours and hours to intervene. … We know our drinking water is at risk, and we know it could be a major crisis."

Vaudreuil-Soulanges comprises a number of towns on the western edge of Montreal Metropolitan Community whose 82 mayors have publicly opposed the $15.7-billion pipeline project. The pipeline would carry western crude – including diluted bitumen from the oil sands – from Alberta to refineries and export terminals in Eastern Canada.

TransCanada proposes to convert existing natural gas pipeline to transport crude from Alberta to Eastern Ontario, then lay new pipe across Quebec and New Brunswick. The NEB is scheduled to begin public hearings in Saint John next week, and the panel will meet in Montreal at the end of the month.

The Energy East project is one of a number of pipeline proposals that the Alberta government is supporting in order to gain access to international markets and world prices for its battered oil industry, and all of them are running into fierce opposition. TransCanada and its backers face considerable resistance to the Energy East proposal from municipalities and First Nations in Quebec, and the Husky spill adds to their fears over the threat posed to the environment and drinking water.

On July 20, more than 200,000 litres of heavy crude and oil-based liquids used to dilute it spilled into the North Saskatchewan River, forcing North Battleford and Prince Albert to shut down their water intake systems and some rural municipalities and First Nations to declare states of emergency.

The Montreal Metropolitan Community and the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake had urged the National Energy Board not to begin hearings until TransCanada could explain how it will safely traverse the Ottawa River. However, the board rejected that request and declared the company's submission "complete," thereby starting a 21-month public review process.

NEB spokesman Marc Drolet said intervenors will have plenty of opportunity to review TransCanada's river-crossing plan before the review panel makes its recommendation to the federal cabinet.

The Mohawk communities and Quebec wing of the Assembly of First Nations have voiced their opposition to the pipeline, and argue that neither the company nor the government has adequately consulted them before launching the review process. Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said the Husky spill in Saskatchewan and one by CNOOC's Nexen Energy ULC in Alberta last summer serve as a warning about what can go wrong.

"That's a major concern of mine," Mr. Simon said. "It's been so since this whole thing started and they said they were going to cross the Ottawa River. I thought: 'Are you crazy? What the hell!' And they never told us how they were going to do it."

The Kanesatake leader said the provincial and county governments need to consult with his community on the issuing of the permit, which means work would be delayed even further.

For its part, TransCanada said it will work with local and provincial officials to address their concerns.

"When we receive the appropriate permits, we will proceed with the necessary work to allow us to determine the optimal way to cross the Ottawa River," company spokesman Jonathan Abecassis said in an e-mail.

He said the pipeline will be monitored 24 hours a day and will have shut-off valves on either side of major waterways such as the Ottawa River. The flow of crude can be stopped within minutes of any problems being detected, he added.

Canadian Energy Pipelines Association president Chris Bloomer said the public shouldn't confuse the safety of a provincially regulated, oil-company-owned feeder pipeline such as Husky's with that of a newly installed, interprovincial pipe operated by a company whose primary business is oil and gas transmission and is regulated federally.

TransCanada examined the possibility of a "trenchless" method for crossing the Ottawa River but decided it was not feasible at its preferred site. Now it is examining its options, though it needs the Vaudreuil-Soulanges permits to complete that work.

At most of the river crossings in Quebec, the company will employ the trenchless method, where it drills a horizontal hole at a depth of roughly 20 metres below the river bed to the opposite shore, and then pulls the pipe through. Its other options include laying the pipe across the river in a trench that is covered with concrete, or constructing a tunnel deep underground. To cross the St. Lawrence River, it plans to construct a tunnel 100 metres below the river bed, east of Montreal.