Mechanical completion expected in second half of 2023

By Laura Keil

The Regional District of Fraser-Fort George has renewed the temporary use permit for Trans Mountain’s worker accommodation camp south of Valemount, but many residents are questioning why the company has not expanded the camp to relieve pressure on area rentals, a situation which has led to cascading effects on the village.

At a public hearing Dec. 5th, several residents spoke about the about-face made by the company after the initial TUP was issued.

When the initial 2019 permit was issued, the company had said it expected the vast majority of area workers to live in accommodation camps, with only a few hundred living outside the camp in the Valemount area. But over the next two and a half years, that number has ballooned to more than a thousand outside the camp. The company reports 2/3rds of its North Thompson non-local workforce is living outside camps, in hotels, RVs or rentals.

In a letter submitted to the public hearing, local resident Rashmi Narayan said housing, groceries, health care and food services have been most impacted by the influx of workers. 

“As a person who works on housing issues, I have watched helplessly how rents have skyrocketed,” she said. “With businesses losing staff to the pipeline, I am dismayed that our stores have had to reduce hours. The new grocery store owner is working to increase the store hours with workers from out of town. However, the workers have few options to find housing.”

Valemount Affordable Rentals administrator Korie Marshall echoed these facts, and pointed out the discrepancy in expected worker numbers, relaying how local residents are being displaced by pipeline workers.

“I have no idea how anyone thought this community of about 500 households, about 1000 residents, could absorb between 1100 and 1500 additional workers that can’t be accommodated in the camp.”

At the meeting, Trans Mountain’s Jasmine Devick, Community Liaison for the North Thompson/Robson Valley, said the Canada Energy Regulator only approved 600 people at the camp and it would be a 6-10 month wait if they applied to change it with the regulator with no guarantee of approval.

The camp consists of temporary ATCO trailers (containing dorms, kitchens and rec rooms) and associated parking and houses about 550 people (with additional rooms for quarantine). 

The temporary use permit will be valid for another three years, though newly released data by Trans Mountain shows they expect the workforce in the North Thompson to taper off beginning in the third quarter of 2023, or sometime next summer. When asked if they’d need the camp for three years, TMX spokesperson Jasmine Devick said that applying for the three years is the standard request.

Regional District Rep Dannielle Alan questioned why Trans Mountain had not followed through on its promise at the last hearing to set up a committee that included reps from local government, Trans Mountain and the public to deal with concerns and issues that arose.

Narayan said after the first TUP meeting, she submitted an application to volunteer to be on the committee and received no response. She also said she submitted two concerns through Trans Mountain’s website and also received no response.

Devick said they met with the Village of Valemount and the Regional District but that “a framework didn’t develop.”

Village of Valemount CAO Eric Depenau also submitted comments to the TUP process, highlighting three major problems that have arisen due to Trans Mountain’s lack of worker accommodation: housing, supply chain and staffing impacts.

“Local listings show single family dwellings available for, at the extreme, as high as $5000 dollars per month. This is in part due to a lack of capacity at the camp and high living out allowances creating conditions where locals struggle to compete.”

“Enormous pressure has been placed on the local economy with shortages of goods noted at local shops such as grocery and pharmacies as an example. Staffing challenges, in part due to inflated rents, have caused some businesses, including the Village of Valemount, to adjust services and at times operating hours.”

Mayor Owen Torgerson, whose family’s company works for Trans Mountain, recused himself from the vote at the regional district and referred the Goat to the Village CAO for comment.

Local Action

Despite the strong words from the village CAO, the Village of Valemount dissolved their housing committee last year, and have put a proposed fourplex proposal on ice due to not receiving any affordable bids to build it.

Other projects are in the works, however, such as the 14-unit apartment on 5th ave that will be available to women and children at risk of violence (both short-term and long-term units), slated to open next spring. A seniors housing project is scheduled to get under construction next year providing an additional 18 living units in a building that also has common areas.

In the meantime, rents continue to price out most people working regular (non-pipeline) jobs, and businesses have been hard-pressed to find enough staff due to the limited housing supply and proliferation of higher-paid jobs. Until very recently, the grocery store had to cut their hours, not opening until noon each day and only operating six days a week. While that’s changed, the number of empty grocery store shelves has not.

“A temporary use permit is not the tool to force a massive project like this to address its impacts on our community,” Marshall said at the public hearing. “But I don’t think that tool exists, so I want it on the record that this camp of 600 beds is not big enough to house all the workers coming here for the project, and our community is massively impacted by that.”