Trans Mountain approval frustrating, says B.C. chief with unresolved concerns about pipeline project

While Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan wasn't surprised to hear that the federal government was moving ahead with plans to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline that runs beneath his reserve, he says the approval is still frustrating because Ottawa has yet to deal with outstanding issues in his community related to the existing pipeline.

'The meaningful dialogue that was supposed to happen never happened,' says Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan

After the federal government approved expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline for a second time on Tuesday, Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan says he will be having conversations with band members and council before coming to any decision about next steps. The 1,150-kilometre pipeline runs under his First Nation's reserve, located near Merritt, B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

 UPDATE June 20, 2019: The Coldwater Indian Band has announced it will challenge the approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in the Federal Court of Appeal.  

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While Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan wasn't surprised to hear that the federal government was moving ahead with plans to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline that runs beneath one of his band's reserves, he said the approval is still "frustrating" because Ottawa has yet to deal with outstanding issues in his community related to the existing pipeline.

Among those issues are the routing of the expansion through his nation's territory, located near Merritt, B.C., and an existing spill site that has yet to be remediated — both rooted in Coldwater's primary concern of protecting the community's water supply.

These concerns have been communicated to government, Trans Mountain and the National Energy Board (NEB) a number of times, yet a detailed study of the band's aquifer still hasn't happened. The band also has yet to get an answer from the NEB about the arguments it put before the board during a detailed route hearing in May 2018.

Construction on the $7.4-billion pipeline expansion project was paused last August after the Federal Court of Appeal struck down the government's approval, saying the NEB failed to adequately consider the pipeline's marine impacts and also "fell well short" of meeting its constitutional obligations of consultation with Indigenous groups.

The decision forced Ottawa to re-engage in consultations with Indigenous communities along the pipeline's route.

When it comes to Coldwater specifically, the Federal Appeal Court ruling stated that "missing from Canada's consultation was any attempt to explore how Coldwater's concerns could be addressed."

The planned expansion — approved by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet for a second time Tuesday — will nearly triple the capacity of the existing 1,150-kilometre pipeline, which runs from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C.

With this new approval, Spahan said he doesn't know what's next for his community, as many unanswered questions remain and he doesn't believe anything has substantially changed — even if there has been another round of dialogue about the community's concerns.

'We want meaningful studies'

One of the main things that needs to happen, as per the NEB's initial approval conditions, is a hydrogeological study in Coldwater. Trans Mountain has been tasked with doing a detailed study of the community's aquifer, which 90 per cent of the community's residents use for drinking water and other household needs.

The aquifer study is supposed to start this summer, Spahan said. But without that study's results, the community can't have a meaningful dialogue with Trans Mountain or the federal government about its concerns.

"We want meaningful studies," he said. "To move forward with the expansion, not knowing all the facts of the aquifer and the risks of it, is very concerning to my community."

Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan, centre, raises an eagle feather on Aug. 30, 2018, before he and other First Nations leaders responded to a Federal Court of Appeal ruling quashing the approvals of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

When asked if he sees the community heading back to court, like it did in the consolidated Federal Court of Appeal case that quashed the initial approval, Spahan didn't offer specifics. 

Tsleil-Waututh, another B.C. First Nation involved in the initial consolidated legal challenge, has already vowed to head back to court to fight the new approval, saying that the federal government's move to buy the pipeline means it is unable to make an unbiased decision.

Engagement with Indigenous groups will continue: minister

During Tuesday's news conference announcing the approval, the federal government acknowledged some of the outstanding issues Coldwater has with the planned expansion.

Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said he's met with Spahan "a number of times" and the government and Trans Mountain will both continue to work with the band on its unresolved concerns related to the project.

"The conclusion of the consultation process does not mean that our engagement with the Indigenous communities ends," he said.

The existing Trans Mountain pipeline, built in the 1950s, runs right through Coldwater's reserve. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Spahan acknowledges those meetings took place, but said that "the meaningful dialogue that was supposed to happen never happened" and that most of the conversations were between the band and the delegated consultation team. 

"We asked questions and they went unanswered because Canada's representatives had no authority to answer them," he said. 

The existing pipeline cuts directly through the band's main reserve and has already contaminated at least two properties located on the bank of the Coldwater River, Spahan said.

"It frightens our members that live right beside the right-of-way of that pipeline, especially for our drinking water."


Chantelle Bellrichard was a reporter with CBC Indigenous based in Vancouver. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @pieglue.