As Trans Mountain changes hands, Coldwater couple not sure who will clean up lingering oil spill

It's been four years since Janice Antoine and Percy Joe learned the Trans Mountain pipeline had contaminated their land. Now they're wondering who to call about cleaning up the underground oil spill that went unnoticed for more than 40 years.

'I don't know what the way forward is and how we can get this cleaned up'

Percy Joe and Janice Antoine stand outside the Merritt Civic Centre last month, where NEB route hearings for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion were taking place. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

It's been four years since Janice Antoine and Percy Joe first learned about an oil spill on their land, after a so-called anomaly was discovered in the Trans Mountain pipeline that runs beneath the couple's property on the Coldwater Reserve near Merritt, B.C.

Now with the federal government purchasing the pipeline from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion as part of an expansion project, the couple is wondering who to turn to as they continue to wait for the land to be cleaned up.

"I don't know what the way forward is and how we can get this cleaned up and sorted out," said Antoine. "And I don't even know who we talk to now."

The spill — which Kinder Morgan calls a "small, contained historic contamination" — was discovered in 2014 during routine maintenance work.

A fence was erected around the hole dug by Kinder Morgan after a 'historic contamination' from the Trans Mountain pipeline was discovered on Janice Antoine's land in 2014. (Submitted by Janice Antoine)

At the time, Antoine recalls being told it was just a "small technical issue."

A few weeks later, she learned it was actually an underground oil spill dating back to 1968, when the pipeline was rerouted, and it had been contaminating the land for more than 40 years.

Antoine, an elementary school principal, raised her family on the 42-hectare property with her late husband. The family grew crops there, raised cattle and drew water for both their farm and household from a well in their yard.

"If it's been there since 1968 ... then how bad of a contamination was there at that time?" said Joe. "How is it impacting our health? We don't know."

With the contaminated soil still in the ground and remediation work stalled, Antoine and Joe wonder if they are being sidelined due to political and legal disputes over the expansion project, which is strongly opposed by the Coldwater Band.

Cleanup not done

When the spill was discovered, Antoine and Joe said some initial investigative and cleanup work was done — a hole was dug, test wells were installed and a consulting company hired by Kinder Morgan started drafting a remediation plan.

Testing by the company detected contamination — chemical components of crude oil and gasoline — in the soil near the spill site, along with some contamination in the groundwater, documents show.

Kinder Morgan did not respond to requests for specific details about the contamination and compensation for Antoine and Joe. 

Janice Antoine walks toward her well. She said the family no longer uses the water from the well, opting to purchase bottled water instead due to the stalled remediation work. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Coldwater also hired the firm PGL Environmental Consultants to review the tests and remediation plan.

Joe said he is particularly concerned that one of the PGL reports states "all of the contamination may not have been identified."

He said another remediation report states that at least 1,530 cubic metres of soil needs to be removed to get rid of the contamination — enough soil to fill a little over half of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

"And there may be still more, depending on what they find after they start digging."

As things remain stalled, the couple is losing income they receive from leasing their land for agriculture. And because the remediation work hasn't been done, they're relying on purchased water instead of using the well, which sits just steps away from the pipeline.

Kinder Morgan attempted to settle with the couple last November for $55,131, an amount intended to compensate them for lost income and crops, time spent negotiating and consulting fees.

Antoine and Joe said they didn't accept the offer because it didn't address a number of their concerns. They have accepted about $7,600 from the company to cover some of their time and travel expenses in early dealings with Kinder Morgan.

Remediation work 'stalled'

In an email statement, Kinder Morgan said "our interests are both to remediate and to ensure Ms. Antoine is treated fairly. We have provided some compensation and will provide further reasonable and supportable compensation as necessary."

Remediation work has also been stalled by a conflict over road access to the site.

Kinder Morgan says it hasn't received permission to access the site, while the Coldwater Band, along with Antoine and Joe, say the delay is linked to the company pushing for a specific kind of legal clearance to the site under the Indian Act, which the band sees as an overstep.

'They need to be open and honest'

Lee Spahan, chief of the Coldwater Band, says he's concerned with how the spill has been handled by Trans Mountain over the last four years.

"They were trying to keep it quiet," he said, recalling the day he first went down to the spill site and saw people from Kinder Morgan digging a hole.

"They need to be open and honest and respectful to the Coldwater Band and the membership.… What happened in Janice's field is very concerning and the remediation has taken too long."

This photo shows the Trans Mountain pipeline exposed on Janice Antoine's property on the Coldwater reserve near Merritt, B.C. The hole has since been filled in, but contaminated soil remains on the property. (Submitted by Janice Antoine)

According to Spahan, the spill has only amplified the community's concerns over the expansion project and its possible impact on its aquifer, the source of 90 per cent of Coldwater's drinking water.

"It's very culturally sensitive, the water. And that's why we need to protect it. Not only for our drinking needs, but for our cultural and traditional values," he said.

Coldwater is currently involved in a legal challenge against the pipeline approval and is opposing the planned route of the expansion before the National Energy Board.

The band is also awaiting the implementation of a court win last fall that found Ottawa failed in its legal obligation to act in the best interests of the community when negotiating the terms of the original pipeline route through the reserve.

'Imbalance in the power of knowledge'

Looking back over the last four years, Antoine said she's not sure what she could have done differently.   

"I've been so hopeful that things beyond my control are going to be sorted out, so we get the use of our land back," she said.

Percy Joe and Janice Antoine are worried their concerns about their land will be forgotten as the Trans Mountain pipeline change is sold to the government. (Chris Corday/CBC)

She said she would have liked to have hired a lawyer to help navigate some of these issues, but it's not an option she can afford.

"There's such an imbalance in the power of knowledge," said Antoine. "It's frightening because it feels like I am going to be forced to accept that nothing gets done."

Ultimately, Antoine said, all she wants is assurance that her water and soil are safe, to be fairly compensated, and to make sure she and her family don't get lost in the shuffle as the pipeline changes hands.

"My fear is they're going to say: 'We're not addressing anything until we go through the transition.' … When you're in your 70s, it's not like we have 50 years to wait."