News / Vancouver

Ottawa told B.C. First Nation of drinking water ‘risk’ from Kinder Morgan pipeline—a day before OK'ing it

Aquifer, source of 90% of Coldwater residents' water, at ‘risk for adverse effects from an oil spill,’ officials said — one day before Ottawa approved Trans Mountain.

Chief Lee Spahan, of the Coldwater Indian band attends a news conference in Vancouver, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Representatives of First Nations addressed the legal action that they are taking against the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Chief Lee Spahan, of the Coldwater Indian band attends a news conference in Vancouver, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Representatives of First Nations addressed the legal action that they are taking against the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

A small First Nation in B.C.’s Interior has warned Ottawa it won’t let its drinking water supply be risked without a fight.

And according to a Nov. 28 joint federal-provincial letter obtained by Metro, Ottawa acknowledged the risk to Coldwater band’s aquifer from Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline — just one day before approving the project.

“These guys have a good case,” said lawyer Matthew Kirchner in an interview, who filed a judicial review challenge to Ottawa’s decision for the band earlier this month. “We know there's a real threat.

“There's uncertainty about what the impacts would be on their water system — their aquifer — and it's essential to understand.”

The pipeline expansion, now approved by federal and provincial governments, would increase oil flow from Alberta’s oil sands to B.C.’s Lower Mainland threefold and is set to start work in September.

The First Nation raised its concerns about the proximity of the Trans Mountain route to its aquifer, upon which 90 per cent of the nearly 800 residents depend for drinking water.

Federal officials took note but, according to the letter sent to Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan Nov. 28, still green lit the project.

“Coldwater could be significantly impacted from a pipeline spill as the community relies primarily on an aquifer crossed by the project for its drinking water,” the letter stated, co-signed by the federal Crown Consultation Lead for major projects, and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office’s executive project director. “Coldwater members also rely on cultural foods for subsistence and are at greater risk for adverse effects from an oil spill.”

Trans Mountain acknowledged the band’s “concerns over protecting their rights and title and the environment,” according to a statement emailed in response to Metro’s questions.

The firm said it’s “been engaging” with Coldwater’s leaders since 2013.

“Those discussions have focused on addressing Coldwater’s concerns including routing and protecting the Coldwater aquifer,” a Trans Mountain spokesperson stated. “We share the same objective of ensuring the construction and operation of the project minimizes impacts to the environment and specifically, the Coldwater aquifer.

“We have worked, and will continue to work, diligently to achieve this.”

Addressing the aquifer issue for the First Nation is one of the conditions of the Crown’s project approval.

“But that's after the fact,” Kirchner said. “This is, 'Let's study it, then build it,' not, 'Let's study it, reconsider whether to approve it, and then maybe build it.'"

If the pipeline expansion proceeds as planned this autumn, Spahan hinted that the battle over water could potentially take on similarities to the water standoff at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

“This is about our drinking water; it is our Standing Rock,” he said. “It'll be up to my membership how they decide … but we're going to do whatever it takes to protect our drinking water.”

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