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The Sherbrooke Record
June 12, 1998

'Battling lies, intimidation and government compliance' Landowners group takes on gas giant

'Battling lies, intimidation and government compliance' Landowners group takes on gas giant

Rita Legault
South Stuckly, Quebec

Despite the fact that TransQuebec Maritime Pipeline Inc. has begun clearing land for the construction of a pipeline through the Eastern Townships, many landowners still plan to do everything they can to stop it.

"TQM is acting like it owns our properties, and they treat us as if we were detestable individuals who don't have the right to speak out," complained St- Etienne-de-Bolton landowner François Wilhelmy, adding that the government is letting the gas company get away with it.

We are facing lies and intimidation and the compliance of government," says South Stukely resident Dr. Jean-Marc St-Hilaire. "People no longer have the right to express themselves."

More than two dozen landowners who fought the pipeline extension through weeks of public hearings, say they plan to exhaust every legal avenue to prevent the pipeline from crossing their land.

About 30 citizens have filed requests for detailed route hearings before National Energy Board, but at least a half dozen others don't plan to sign over land rights to the pipeline promoter.

About a dozen of the holdouts met last weekend at the home of South Stukelv residents Gary and Christina Richards. The group includes a cross section of Quebecers: anglophones and francophones; farmers and professionals, housewives and doctors; and even a retired Quebec Court judge.

What they have in common is their anger at the way the project has proceeded, seemingly paved by bureaucrats and politicians they say are ignoring ecological and safety concerns raised during the review process.

The group is waiting for news on a suit they filed in the Quebec Court of Appeals asking for leave to appeal a favorable decision by the provincial farmland protection board, said Ayer's Cliff resident Norman Benoit.

Landowners had hoped that asking for leave to appeal, which they argued for on May 14, would suspend the approval and therefore delay construction of the pipeline. But the National Energy Board approved the work on areas which are not being contested by individual landowners, said NEB spokesman Denis Tremblay.

PNGTS spokesman Jean Simard said construction has begun in Quebec with clearing and dynamiting going on in Kingscroft, Coaticook and East Hereford. On the American side, construction has begun on five stretches of the route, including an area about 40 miles south east of East Hereford.

Within the next two weeks, another team will begin in Magog Township at the intersection of Route 108 and Route 55 North.

If the appellate court agrees to hear the case, that will suspend the government go-ahead forcing work to stop until a decision is rendered. Landowners hope to hear from the judge soon.

Richards, whose land is already scarred by a pipeline and two Hydro lines, doesn?t trust the related utilities -Hydro-Québec owns controlling interests in Gaz Metropolitain which is behind the pipeline promoters.

"They've bulldozed beaver dams and ponds that were 100 years old. They've trampled the environment and lied to us. They told us we could plant dwarf fruit trees in the right of way, but they come along every two years and pummel them," complained Richards, adding that many of the mitigating measures included in the permit cannot be enforced.

Nicole Plante and Robert Boisvert have only 30 acres of property in South Stukely. This will be the fifth servitude crossing their land. There are two hydro lines and a pipeline on their land and projects to build another of each.

"What will be left after that?" she asked ' adding that the pipeline will further scar her property and pass through a deer yard where whitetails winter.

Some landowners, including former judge François Wilhelmy, were not on the original pipeline route which avoided St-Etienne-de-Bolton. But following public hearings, TQM rerouted it through St-Etienne, far from the property of MRC warden Pierre Riverain who backed the project and ended up getting a job for TQM.

"The MRC decided it would not pass on Mr. Riverain's property and it ended up on mine," Wilhelmy complained, adding that he didn't get the chance to take part in hearings by the provincial environmental assessment agency, by the provincial farmland protection board, or by the National Energy Board.

"That's democracy?" he asked, adding that the pipeline will cross 850 metres of his land, felling a 10-year-old plantation of oak trees.

Riverain eventually declared his conflict of interest on a minor point once the final route was determined, Plante said, adding that the new route also by-passed the property of the MRC?s urban planner.

Residents are also indignant because their lands are being destroyed to provide a route for natural gas exports to the United States. Benoit says that despite earlier claims that local industries needed natural gas, more than 90 per cent of it will be exported.

"This is not for Quebecers," said St-Hilaire. "It's not of public utility."

TQM vice-president Robert Heider has said that opponents will have no choice because the project has been declared a public utility and TQM can get a government decree forcing landowners to give up servitudes.

That makes a lot of landowners angry, including Lucie-Roy Alain of East Hereford whose 446-acre farm will be crossed by the pipeline.

"And we don't want it," she said. "We don't want this garbage. It's for the Americans, but we will pay for the health and safety hazards".

Municipal officials were told by TQM safety experts that if there is a crack in the pipeline it could throw a flame 300 to 400 feet away. If the pipeline bursts, the explosion could create a fireball that is 1000 feet in diameter causing second degree burns to people within 1/2 mile.

The landowners also complain that as average citizens they are not equipped for the David and Goliath battle against TQM.

"It's absolutely scandalous that a farmer with a high school education is pitted against the highest paid lawyers in North America," Richards said.

The Richards say that while battling TQM for more than a year has been frustrating and exhausting, they say the best part was getting to know their neighbors - English and French.

But the process has been divisive, some neighbors waiting for others to sign so they could get their compensation.

TQM has even lied to some neighbors, claiming others have signed and that they will get less compensation if they hold out, or will have to pay court costs if they challenge the offer.

"They mistakenly thought that by having our older weaker neighbors sign that we would give in, but it has just made us more angry and resolved," Gary Richards said. "We intend to take this all the way to the legal end."

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