By Rita Legault
TQM pipeline route approved, but landowners plan another roadblock
Fewer than two weeks after it completed 10 grueling days of testimony during detailed route hearings into the TransQuebec Maritime pipeline through the Eastern Townships, the National Energy Board released a rapid decision allowing the construction to go ahead as planned.
"They decided in our favor all along the route, with a few minor concessions on the property of Mr. (Norman) Benoit," said TQM spokesman Jean Simard, adding that the NEB ruled in favor of TQM's chosen route on all other stretches that were contested during two weeks of detailed route hearings in Orford in late July.
Simard pointed out that only 17 property owners out of more than 400 have not signed over rights of way. He said the final step was to obtain rights of entry which will give TQM access'to those properties in order to start construction.
Simard explained that obtaining rights of entry was a simple and automatic procedure now that the NEB has approved the final route allowing TQM access to the properties of reluctant landowners.
Not so, says the lawyer representing the handful of holdouts who are still adamantly opposed to the pipeline crossing their properties.
Lawyer Paul Thibault has filed a legal challenge of the National Energy Board's power to emit rights of entry on his client's properties. Thibault claims certain procedures have not been followed and the delay to hand down such decisions has expired.
In the meantime, landowners are angered by the NEB quick and unequivocal decision supporting TQM's original route.
In its decision released late Friday afternoon, the three NEB commissioners charged with the detailed route hearings ruled that landowners failed to prove that TQM's chosen path was not, the best possible route. The board also ruled that TQM was committed to the most appropriate methods and timing of construction.
"We came up with a better alternative in five weeks than TQM did in two years," charged South Stukely landowner Gary Richards, adding that "unless you're a pipeline groupie, they (the NEB commissioners) give no value to your, testimony."
While the NEB did insist that TQM be careful while building around some ponds and within 30 metres of a Bed and Breakfast in South Stukely, the NEB ruled that landowners did not prove their alternatives were superior to the route defended by TQM and approved by an earlier NEB decision.
I guess this proves you can't fight city hall," Richards said. "They have entirely wasted our time."
"The National Energy Board is caught in a snare of having issued a certificate of public convenience," Richards said, adding that commissioners put no weight on the opinions of the environmental expert hired by landowners.
Richards said the NEB, and the process that pits ordinary citizens against rich and powerful corporations, made it difficult for them to find legal and technical experts. He said it was hard enough to find an expert willing to forgo the chance of future contracts from the powerful energy lobby, without the complications of schedule changes which wreaked havoc with their plans.
Throughout the process landowners and their lawyer pleaded with commissioners to rebalance the scales ofjustice tipped in favor of TQM which came to the hearings armed with technical and legal experts to argue every aspect of the case.
"I live on the land, and I walk the land every day, but some agricultural expert can say there will be absolutely no damage and they believe him, complained Richards, who has already lived through the nightmare of a pipeline and a Hydro line being built across his land.
Coalition president Normand Benoit was not impressed with the so-called concessions that were made to him.
"Those concessions were planned," he said, explaining that the route going through his property didn't respect TQM's own standards.
"As far as the other objections we raised, they were completely ignored," he said.
"From the beginning we were skeptical about the NEB and the detailed route hearings," he added. "Now we have our answer."
The NEB released the swift decision Friday afternoon, a few hours after it closed its offices for a move. Still in the middle of the unpacking, officials at the NEB were still unavailable most of the day Monday as voice mail informed callers that they could not leave any messages because the recording "had an extended absence greeting placed".
Late Monday an embarrassed NEB official finally returned the Record's numerous calls. Noting the increased annoyance over a number of messages, the NEB's public relations officer apologizing profusely for the confusion caused by the release of the decision during the office's chaotic move to new digs.
"We did a stupid thing, against my advice," said Denis Tremblay. "It was a PR mistake."
Not only could reporters and the public not reach the energy board for information about the decision, the NEB's website has been shut down since Thursday, Tremblay said.
They took away our phones and computers," said a frustrated Tremblay, who had to fumble through a box to unearth the decision, and said he hoped he could locate a fax to send it to the paper.
Tremblay, who had earlier guestimated that the decision would take at least three or four weeks, could not explain why this particular one was rendered so quickly.
"A decision usually takes three to four weeks," he said. "This one beat the records, hopefully no other corporation will expect that kind of speed," he said.
The speedy decision pleased pipeline promoters who admitted last week that July's hearings threatened to screw up their cramped construction schedule. TQM spokesman Simard said last week that they may be forced to build during the hunting season and had polled landowners to see if they would object.
Despite concerns about their looming deadline, Simard said construction is moving along on the three quarters of the line that had been approved before Friday's decision to rubber stamp the final 25 per cent.
Work is progressing day to day and about a third, or 50 kilometres of the pipeline, is complete. Most of the finished work is near the beginning of the route in Montreal where work is expected to be finished by the end of August,
Simard said Monday that there are still 17 landowners who have yet to sign, and five with whom they are still negotiating over compensation.
TQM still hopes to reach agreements with all of the landowners Simard said, adding that they will be contacting recalcitrant property owners over the next week or so to discuss the nature of the construction work and negotiate compensation.
"They can't stop us from proceeding now," he said, adding that if TQM fails to come to a settlement with landowners over compensation the litigation will be handed over to an arbitrator.
Simard warned that if it comes to that, landowners may end up getting less money. He said that while TQM can settle with property owners for anywhere between 100 and 200 per cent of their property values, an arbitrator will not exceed the value of the land.
"Of course, we can settle out of court at any time during the proceedings," he added.
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