Hundreds of landowners still haven't signed agreements with Trans Mountain for pipeline expansion

With the re-approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, landowners along the route who have yet to sign agreements with the company say they're frustrated with a process they say is unequally weighted in favour of the corporation. 

'It's a completely unfair process,' says Abbotsford, B.C., resident Barbara Gard

Robin Scory walks through the right of way where the original Trans Mountain pipeline was built on his property in Aldergrove, B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

With the re-approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, landowners along the route who have yet to sign agreements with the company say they're frustrated with a process they say is unequally weighted in favour of the corporation. 

The 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain expansion project between Edmonton and Burnaby, B.C., would nearly triple the existing pipeline's capacity to 890,000 barrels a day.

The original Trans Mountain pipeline cuts through Robin Scory's 138-acre property in Aldergrove, B.C., where he lives with his wife and their dogs. But he hasn't signed a new acquisition agreement with Trans Mountain for the expansion. 

Scory said he knew about existing line when he bought the place about 10 years ago but didn't know about a possible expansion.

Then, a few years ago, he got a phone call from a land agent working for Trans Mountain asking him to meet. 

The two men got together on the side of the street, next to the existing right of way on Scory's land. They talked about the proposed expansion. Scory said he told the agent what his concerns were — he was worried about how Trans Mountain would ensure his privacy and safety during construction and had issues with the existing pipeline where it crosses a creek on his property.

A picker unloads pipe from a truck and stacks it in a Trans Mountain yard in Edson, Alta. (Terry Reith/CBC)

But the land agent told him it wasn't the time to have those conversations. 

"It was almost like he bit into a lemon. And I was like, 'Why are we here then?'" said Scory.

Since then, he's hired his own land agent and recommends other people hire one if they're approached with an easement agreement.

At the same time, he said "it doesn't give me the full protection because they're still contacting me and sending these letters and phoning and threatening — 'Hey, if you don't do this, we'll just do a Section 104 [right of entry] and come on your property anyway.' So they're still playing tactics and it makes you feel like you don't own your land."

In a filing on June 18, Trans Mountain said it is still working to finalize 1,112 land acquisition contracts along the route, or roughly a third of the 3,193 tracts of land identified for acquisition.

Nearly half of those properties belong to private landowners: 417 are in B.C. and 60 in Alberta. The other tracts of land are held by municipalities or are classified as federal or Crown land. None of the tracts of land are specified as being held by Indigenous communities. 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Trans Mountain said that the Crown corporation is still in discussion with hundreds of landowners over acquisition agreements but said it's secured contracts with 73 per cent of the private landowners along the route of the expansion. 

Access to land regulated by NEB

There are two ways Trans Mountain, or any pipeline regulated by the National Energy Board (NEB), can get legal access to build a pipeline on privately owned land: through a land acquisition agreement or a right of entry order from the NEB.

Early in the process, a land agent will generally approach the landowner to work out an agreement. These contracts are made one by one, and include compensation for the lands that would be used during construction and for the pipeline right of way. The contracts tend to last indefinitely unless otherwise specified, according to the NEB landowner guide. The guide also states that the NEB does not regulate any part of the contract between a landowner and proponent. 

If a dispute arises, the parties can turn to the NEB in various stages of the board's consideration of a project. Detailed route hearings, for example, offer a chance for landowners to bring up concerns about the exact route of the line or the timing of construction. 

A flowchart depicting the process for land acquisitions for NEB regulated pipelines. (NEB)

Disputes over compensation are not dealt with by the NEB. Those are diverted to a body called the Pipeline Arbitration Secretariat, managed by Natural Resources Canada.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, a spokesperson from Natural Resources Canada said there are no active cases before the secretariat over compensation for the Trans Mountain expansion and that it hasn't adjudicated any compensation disputes related to the project to date. 

If a land acquisition agreement isn't signed, the company can apply through the NEB for a right of entry order. The NEB guide states landowners are still entitled to compensation before the company enters the land. If there's still disagreement about the amount of money being offered, landowners can then go through the negotiation or arbitration process with the pipeline arbitration secretariat.

'They're going to do whatever they want'

For Scory, his concerns include compensation, privacy and security, remediation of the land after construction, the state of the creek on his property where the existing pipeline crosses and the company's spill prevention and response planning 

He said he's not being greedy or unreasonable. 

"If they said, 'What's your concerns? What do you want? What do you need?' I would be happy to put all that out there: 'This is what I need for my land value, for my security, for my privacy,'" he said. 

But instead he feels like the company is being sneaky about getting an agreement signed. Scory's property is currently listed for sale and he was baffled to find out the land agent was in contact with his real estate agent asking questions about potential buyers. 

"I didn't tell him to contact my real estate agent," he said. 

Correspondence from Trans Mountain to Scory shows the approach the land agent has taken to trying to secure an acquisition agreement, with fluctuating compensation offers. The most recent email stated the company would be applying for a right of order entry from the NEB, adding that "the compensation will be substantially reduced" and that "the incentive payment will be removed." 

"They're going to do whatever they want," said Scory, who said he has realized he doesn't have the resources to battle the company. 

He sees himself as being just one small part in a massive expansion project. 

"What about people that have houses close by? What about the Indigenous people? There's just so much undealt with."

Trans Mountain: Goal is to treat landowners fairly

Speaking to its approach for making agreements, a Trans Mountain spokesperson wrote: "Our key objective is to treat each landowner fairly and equitably. Over the past seven years, we have worked to identify and address landowners' concerns and questions and our land teams work with landowners to reach jointly equitable solutions."

Barbara Gard lives on a slice of acreage in Abbotsford, B.C., with her goats, chickens, pigs and dogs. It's a hobby farm nestled on the side of Sumas Mountain. She already has three Trans Mountain pipelines traversing her property and an existing easement agreement from the 1950s, signed by a previous owner, for $29.82. 

Barbara Gard holds up a copy of the original easement agreement for her property in Abbotsford, B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Gard said her experiences with the company — the integrity digs, the right-of-way clearing and past incidents with the legacy pipeline — have informed her concerns for the local environment.

In 2005, before Gard moved to the area, the pipeline spilled an estimated 210 cubic metres of crude oil near her home in the surrounding soil, a wetland and a local creek. A report by the Transportation Safety Board on the incident shows that it took a week from the time an odour complaint was received from a local resident for the rupture to be discovered. 

"The delays in emergency response, as well as the time taken to identify the leak, increased the severity of the accident," the report said.  

According to Trans Mountain, a "successful" restoration after the spill and long-term monitoring wrapped up in 2012. 

Ward's own experiences with Trans Mountain and its contractors have left her skeptical about the standards of remediation and restoration to which the company is held. 

"I don't really have much faith anymore ... It's a completely unfair process," she told CBC News about her dealings with Trans Mountain and the NEB. 

Barbara Gard stands next to a pipeline marker on her property in Abbotsford, B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

In her view, the problem is the company holds all the power, knowledge and skills, while she's kept on her toes trying to keep track of letters and emails and regulatory processes with tight deadlines and little support. 

"As a landowner, it's very hard not to feel completely disheartened," she said. "What they could have, should have done, was provide each segment of landowners an equal pool of experts and knowledge." 

As it stands, each landowner is approached and negotiated with individually and are reaching for support and guidance on an ad hoc basis without necessarily knowing what their next door neighbour is doing. 

Gard hired a lawyer to support her through the regulatory process. But according to the NEB landowner guide, landowners don't have any legal right under the NEB Act to have legal costs covered. It's up to the company to decide if it will reimburse her. 

Steel pipe to be used in the oil pipeline construction of the Canadian government’s Trans Mountain Expansion Project lies at a stockpile site in Kamloops, B.C., on June 18, 2019. (Dennis Owen/Reuters)

Gard said she's not weighing in on being pro or anti-pipeline. 

"I don't have a choice," she said. "I have a property with an easement. I'm dealing with reality."

Her primary concerns are about specific environmental protections in her area: the creeks, the riparian area and the safety of her animals.

"I haven't met anybody in the company that is hearing me, accepting what I'm saying is valid, validating my needs and that creates such distress."