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Farmers defiant as gas company demands access

Chilliwack farmers refuse access to Spectra Energy to replace a gas pipeline under their land, under threat of a forced entry order.
Corn farmer Gord Mitchell (left) is refusing to let Spectra Energy access his land to replace a natural gas pipeline that runs underneath his cornfields because of extensive damage that was done the last time the company did work there. Mitchell is seen here with neighbouring farmer

Some Chilliwack farmers are fighting to protect their land from unnecessary damage by a natural gas pipeline company, even under threat of a forced entry order.

Members of the Fraser Valley Association of Pipeline Landowners, led by president Gord Mitchell, want a stringent contract with Spectra Energy before the company enters their land to replace an outdated pipeline under their fields.

Negotiations have failed. Mitchell was served legal papers on Friday from Spectra Energy, indicating that the company has applied to the National Energy Board for a forced entry order onto Mitchell's cornfield, which is home to the well-known Sparkes Corn Barn.

Mitchell has 21 days to respond before NEB makes a ruling.

"We're just going to ask the NEB that they leave it for us to sign a contract so that we can protect ourselves," said Mitchell.

"If the worst happens, if the order comes through, then we're backed into a corner where we won't have any other recourse except to stand in front of the machines. Because we have to have this (the contract). We can't allow them to do this again," he said, referring to land damage resulting from Spectra's repair of the pipeline two years ago.

Since first installing the pipeline in 1957, the line has become strained as Chilliwack's population has grown and activity passing overhead and nearby has increased.

In line with regulations, Spectra Energy must replace three kilometres of pipeline that cuts underneath the city with another pipe with stronger walls. Most of the designated replacement will be through agricultural land, 2.4 km in the east end of the city below Luckukuck Way, passing through Chilliwack River and Prairie Central roads.

The company planned to start this first phase of the project early this month, expecting to complete it by September. However, because some farmers along the line have refused access without a rigid contract, Spectra has not begun the work.

In 2011, Spectra came onto Mitchell's land to investigate an anomaly in the pipe. The crop at the dig site was totally damaged as a result. And, the heavy machinery that drove through the field to access the dig compressed the soil to such an extent that next year's corn along the access route was much smaller and paler, and worth much less, than the corn one row over.

"We will be compensating for damages and for crop losses based on the fair market value of whatever crops are that 30-metre right-of-way," said Gary Weilinger, Spectra Energy's vice-president of external affairs.

Mitchell received approximately $68,000 in compensation for damage related to Spectra's work on the pipeline in 2011. But the amount covered only one year of losses, whereas crop damage has extended to every subsequent year.

There was total crop loss on the dig site in both 2011 and 2012, according to Mitchell. He expects 80–90 per cent loss in the area this year. This does not include crop damage along the machinery access route.

Spectra Energy commits to repairing operation sites, including replacing topsoil, shrubs, and, in the case of city work, pavement.

"We put everything back," said Weilinger. "We will leave things the way we found it before we came."

In 2011, because of the urgent nature of the work, Spectra contractors did not remove the topsoil prior to digging. The quality of the replacement topsoil on the land was very poor, Mitchell says. The dry earth is low in nutrients and nitrogen, and has failed to nurture a good crop.

The Mitchell family has had an easement agreement with Spectra Energy since 1957, a document that Gord Mitchell says was forced onto his father and grandfather. The family received only $157 as compensation for the land surveys and legal fees related to the pipeline's construction.

However, crops along the route do not grow as well as others, says Mitchell, because the pipeline warms the soil and dries out the plants.

"Every year since then, we've lost crop on our land," said Mitchell, who argues that compensation should take into account loss in subsequent years.

Mitchell will allow Spectra Energy onto the land to replace the existing pipe, under the condition that Spectra sign a contract similar to one they have with Ontario farmers.

A 2010 Ontario contract between the company and a group of pipeline landowners, Gaplo-Union, includes a sliding scale for compensation, in which Spectra pays the farmer the full value of affected crop sites for several years, gradually reducing the amount to 20 per cent compensation in perpetuity.

The Ontario contract also has a wet soil shutdown clause. On Mitchell's property in 2011, contractors continued to do the work even as it rained, creating large depressions in the soil. The area promptly flooded, and floodwater washed into the rest of the field, spreading the damage to crops.

Chilliwack farmer Alf Kloot's properties are first in line for pipeline replacement in this first phase. Kloot has never dealt with Spectra before, but fears damage to his land after watching Mitchell's struggle with the company.

"Spectra's so big. We're nothing compared to Spectra," said Kloot. "The biggest thing is just bringing the soil back to normal."

The second phase of Spectra's replacement of the pipeline, planned for 2014, consists of 600 metres underneath the Cottonwood Mall parking lot, extending to the Real Canadian Superstore. The City of Chilliwack confirmed that the company has been cooperating well, and will rebuild the disturbed concrete and provide compensation to local businesses for any reduction in revenue.

The city is not anticipating costs related to Spectra's work.

According to Weilinger, the pipeline affects 30 landowners, but only the six making up the Fraser Valley Association of Pipeline Landowners are protesting the project.

Failure to replace the pipe could result in a rupture, and a release of natural gas.

"We have to keep the product in the pipe, and it has to continue to move safely," said Weilinger.