Coldwater band asks Ottawa to intervene after Trans Mountain changes aquifer study plans

The Coldwater band is calling for federal intervention after Trans Mountain announced it was changing the way it would study the aquifer the First Nation relies on for its drinking water.

Aquifer study part of the conditions of approval for pipeline expansion

Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan on the banks of the Coldwater River. He has sent a letter to the federal government outlining concerns with Trans Mountain's announcement it would change how it would complete an aquifer study due to delays in a drilling program on the reserve. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

The Coldwater band is calling for federal intervention after Trans Mountain announced it was changing the way it would study the aquifer the First Nation relies on for its drinking water.

In a letter penned to the federal government, Chief Lee Spahan wrote that he sees "a crisis is emerging with Trans Mountain failing to live up to previous commitment it has made to properly study our aquifer."

Coldwater, a band within the Nlaka'pamux Nation whose reserve is located about 100 kilometres southwest of Kamloops, B.C., has concerns about the route of the twinned pipeline and how it might impact the source of drinking water in the community. 

The National Energy Board (now Canada Energy Regulator) tasked Trans Mountain with completing a hydrogeological study of the aquifer that flows beneath and around Coldwater, under its conditions of approval for its pipeline expansion, before starting construction in the area. 

Coldwater's concerns have been at the forefront of two Federal Court of Appeal cases focused on the expansion as well as regulatory hearings where the band has argued for a route change to avoid the aquifer entirely. 

The existing Trans Mountain pipeline runs through the Coldwater reserve and there is a spill site on the reserve that has yet to be remediated. Trans Mountain plans to construct its expansion line just outside the reserve boundaries. 

Drilling delays 

Trans Mountain wrote to the regulator in mid-March to say it was changing the way it would complete the study, deviating from the program agreed to with Coldwater, because of delays in getting on the reserve where six exploratory drill sites were supposed to be put in place. 

"Trans Mountain has no reasonable choice but to proceed to complete its report without the data from that program," the company wrote in a letter to the regulator on March 13. 

Trans Mountain's letter says it told Coldwater in December 2019 that if the First Nation did not permit the company to start drilling at the sites by early February, the company would complete the report based on other data sources.

A pipeline marker for the existing Trans Mountain pipeline as it passes by a playground near the Coldwater River and Coldwater Reserve in B.C. (CBC)

Spahan's letter to Natural Resources Canada and Indigenous Services says Coldwater was still in talks with Tran Mountain in early February about the drilling program, with meetings planned in early March about plans to begin clearing drill pads on-reserve. Coldwater then got a letter from the company Feb. 20 saying it would go ahead with the report without the drilling.

Spahan's letter says when Canada re-approved the project, "it did so knowing that Coldwater and Trans Mountain had planned a hydrogeological study that included exploratory drilling at six agreed to locations on Coldwater [reserve]." 

Coldwater wants the federal government to step in to ensure the study can get "back on track" according to the approach that was mutually agreed upon, before Trans Mountain submits its aquifer report to the Canada Energy Regulator. 

Spahan's letter says "Unless Canada intervenes, Trans Mountain will undermine the commitment that Canada relied on in approving the project." 

Trans Mountain to file report by May 15

In an emailed statement on Tuesday, Trans Mountain said the "fieldwork we require for the aquifer study has been completed" and the company plans to submit its report to the regulator by May 15, or potentially sooner. 

"We believe the work we have done will support the condition requirements and we are continuing to advance the on-reserve aquifer work with Coldwater."

It added it was "actively seeking co-operation from Coldwater in assessing an alternative route" for the pipeline expansion.

In an emailed statement, Natural Resources Canada acknowledged receiving Spahan's letter and said the ministries are developing a response.

"We value our relationship with Coldwater, and both ministers are fully aware of their concerns about the groundwater and aquifer under Coldwater Indian Reserve," said the statement.