Trans Mountain oil spill bolsters Sumas First Nation opposition to twinned pipeline

An oil spill at a Trans Mountain pipeline pump station in Abbotsford, B.C., over the weekend has bolstered the Sumas First Nation's opposition to seeing the pipeline twinned through its territory. 

‘It's not going all that well as far as Indigenous involvement,’ says chief about spill response

Workers are seen at the site of a crude oil spill at a Trans Mountain Pipeline pump station in Abbotsford on June 14, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

An oil spill at a Trans Mountain pipeline pump station in Abbotsford, B.C., over the weekend has bolstered the Sumas First Nation's opposition to seeing the pipeline twinned through its territory. 

The spill was detected in the early hours of Saturday morning. Trans Mountain estimates that up to 1,195 barrels (190,000 litres) of light crude was released during the incident. 

An incident command post has been set up at a nearby hotel where representatives from Trans Mountain, the Canada Energy Regulator (formerly the NEB), B.C.'s Ministry of Environment and others are co-ordinating response efforts alongside First Nations leadership. 

But Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver said trust is stretched thin and that the spill response co-ordination has been frustrating. 

"It's not going all that well as far as Indigenous involvement in a territory that we look at as unceded territory," he said. 

He said since learning about the spill on Saturday morning it's been a challenge to get independent monitors on-site. He's also concerned about how and when details are being communicated to the Nation.  

"It brews a lot of mistrust among our leadership," he said. 

Chief Dalton Silver walks around Lightning Rock with Sonny McHalsie, Naxaxalhtsi, following a ceremony of Indigenous leaders in a call to save a First Nations burial site in Abbotsford, B.C., Friday, June 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

On Sunday, Trans Mountain said in a news release that the pipeline was restarted at around 2 p.m. that day.

Silver said he was in a meeting with representatives from the Crown corporation on Sunday evening, "and there was no indication that they'd opened up the pipeline and had it running again."

"I'm a little skeptical — maybe more than a little — about the quality of information we're getting about everything that's going on," he said. 

In an email to CBC News, Trans Mountain said it has provided monitors with access to "the various sections of the site" since Saturday morning, subject to having the required training and personal protective equipment. 

It acknowledged that access to the site was delayed while an access plan was put together to ensure people's safety. 

'My biggest concern has always been water' 

Sumas is among a handful of B.C. First Nations opposed to the Trans Mountain expansion. The pipeline currently moves about 300,000 barrels of crude a day between Alberta and the B.C. coast. The expansion would increase that capacity to 890,000 barrels a day. 

Sumas is in the middle of hearings before the Canada Energy Regulator trying to prevent the Trans Mountain expansion from being routed through the area. Among the arguments Sumas put forward in its statement of opposition are concerns about cultural sites and aquifers in the Nation's territory. 

"We need to see our Indigenous laws respected within our territories, as we have no agreement whatsoever with any form of government over ceding or surrendering our territories or our resources," said Silver. 

Directly beneath the pump station where Saturday's spill occurred is the aquifer Silver said is a source of drinking water for his community. 

"My biggest concern has always been water," he said. 

There are between 195-305 wells located within the aquifer, according to provincial data. Silver said there are also other waterways nearby, including salmon-bearing streams. 

Trans Mountain said the spill is contained to the pump station property and that it has groundwater monitoring on-site along with air monitoring that is ongoing. 

An aerial photograph of the pump station spill site in Abbotsford, B.C. supplied to media from the non-profit environmental organization Wilderness Committee. (Wilderness Committee)

Silver said even if there isn't any detection of the oil spill showing up in the on-site well, "the big worry for me is that which has gone into the field next door."

Trans Mountain said the neighbouring property was contaminated when the oil spill seeped through a culvert and into a dead-end ditch in the field. 

"I was over there and it looks like a fairly swampy area and even more so now with all the rain we're getting and that's the big worry I have, is that it's seeping into the ground and we don't know how the groundwater travels," said Silver. 

In an emailed statement on Monday, the Fraser Health Authority stated that as of now, "there are no concerns regarding drinking water."

Environmental inspection underway  

As the clean-up effort continues, monitors for the Sumas First Nation are being organized to work shifts on the site so they can maintain a constant presence.  

Silver said this is the fourth spill near the reserve since 2005 and he hasn't been satisfied with the way spill response and remediation has been handled in the past. 

Workers are seen at the site of a crude oil spill at a Trans Mountain Pipeline pump station as cattle graze in a neighbouring field, in Abbotsford, on Sunday, June 14, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

On Monday, a monitor for the Trans Mountain Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee arrived at the command post to work with the Canada Energy Regulator on a joint environmental inspection at the spill site. 

According to an online update from the regulator on Monday, "the majority of standing oil has been recovered and oiled soil and gravel is now being removed." 

It also stated that Trans Mountain will be held accountable for the clean up and remediation of the incident site "in accordance with CER regulations and guidelines."