By Spencer Hall, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, RMG

The Canadian Energy Regulator (CER) says Trans Mountain has satisfied measures the company was required to take after receiving an inspection order this summer for inadequately addressing socioeconomic issues stemming from construction of its pipeline expansion project.

The order was issued by the CER on July 4th, after a review by an inspection officer and Indigenous Monitors earlier this spring concluded Trans Mountain (TMX) didn’t follow its Socio-Economic Effects Monitoring Plan, failing to properly incorporate qualitative data on worker and local business accommodations in the North Thompson Region in three of its quarterly reports. 

At the height of the pipeline’s construction 2,000 workers on the project lived in Valemount, effectively tripling the Village’s population. Rents ballooned to $2,000/month per room, and up to about $8,000 for a house, with regular food shortages at the grocery store. Local businesses struggled to attract new employees from outside the Village due to the lack of available housing, with some having to cut back on operating hours.

In the inspection order, the CER said it received feedback directly from community organizations and local governments on accommodation issues.

Feedback from the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George expressing concern that the increased workforce in Valemount exceeded the community’s supply for permanent and temporary housing, goods, and services was not included in TMX’s January to March 2022 quarterly report. The CER said had it been included in the report, it would have triggered the threshold and required the company’s general construction contractor to follow up with local authorities and hotel and tourism associations to identify underlying concerns and report measures it took to manage impacts.

Valemount Affordable Rentals Society and Housing Committee members sent two emails to the CER and cc’d [email protected] in December 2022, in which they stated concerns regarding housing shortages in town due to “inadequate work camps.” 

TMX told the Regulator the emails weren’t included in its October to December 2022 quarterly report because they weren’t directed to the company, but confirmed it received a copy of them. It said the information was not received in a way that was listed as a data source in its Socio-Economic Effects Monitoring Plan. 

The CER didn’t accept this as a valid reason to exclude this feedback, adding that if the data had been added to the report it would have triggered the threshold for accommodation arrangements, requiring the company’s general construction contractor to evaluate how to balance local worker accommodations.

“[The plan] does not include qualifiers which would exclude emails on which Trans Mountain is copied; Item 12 of Table 3 lists “other engagement mechanisms” as a data source; and Trans Mountain stated in the plan that data would be collected proactively,” the CER said.

TMX also didn’t include feedback from a member of Valemount council in its January to March 2023 report, after the council member — who was not identified in the document — recommended the company should keep its Valemount camp open longer than its planned closure date to avoid further use of local rentals. The CER said the first part of the threshold for this indicator was already met in the report and if the data had been included, the company would have been required to take action.

The CER gave Trans Mountain until August 4th to address its concerns and fill in the required data in Table 5 of its Socio-Economic Effects Monitoring Plan.

Company response

The company was also required to submit a description of its learnings related to monitoring and addressing socio-economic impacts from the project by August 14th and send the CER a corrective action plan by August 21st that includes how the company will make sure qualitative data will make its way into Socio-Economic Effects Monitoring Reports in the future.

Compliance documents typically aren’t made public. However, after filing an Access to Information and Privacy request on September 8th and multiple follow-ups, The Goat obtained a copy of the Trans Mountain documents on November 28th.

After the regulator requested the company provide information on the accommodation mix preferred by local communities, Trans Mountain developed two surveys — one for Valemount residents and another targeted survey for local authorities, hotel and tourism associations, and other stakeholders. 

The community survey was advertised via print, online through the Goat and social media, and on Trans Mountain’s website. Both surveys were open for response from July 12th to July 21st, with emails sent out on July 13th to invite responses to the targeted survey.

According to the documents, the community survey received 30 responses and showed respondents would have liked to have seen a mix of commercial accommodations — hotels, motels, RV parks or campgrounds — private local rentals, and the Blue River Camp from August to October 2023. 

“Of the types of worker accommodation option selections made by community survey respondents (multiple selections allowed), 43 per cent of selections indicated desired use of commercial accommodations, 27 per cent of selections indicated desired use of local private rentals, 23 per cent of sections indicated desired use of Blue River Camp, and 7 per cent of selections indicated the respondent was unsure of desired accommodation,” Trans Mountain said.

Based on June 2023 data, the most recent data available at the time, TMX said its accommodation mix was similar to the wants of community survey respondents.

The company said measures it could take to achieve the community’s desired accommodation mix would include having its general construction contractor engage with interested commercial accommodation and private rental providers and advise workers on available commercial accommodation. It said it could also continue to provide the Village of Valemount with monthly Project progress updates until the end of October 2023 that include an estimate of TMX’s construction workforce living in the Valemount area, which it said was ongoing as of July 2023.

The Goat reached out to the Village to confirm it received these reports but didn’t receive a response by time of publication.

TMX’s targeted survey received 18 responses. Three stated they were from nonprofit organizations and 15 said they provided local accommodation (commercial and private).

Of these respondents, 39 per cent said they had no feedback and 39 said they had positive feedback about Trans Mountain’s use of worker accommodation between January 2022 and the time of the survey. However 22 per cent said they had concerns, including staffing challenges faced by local businesses, higher housing prices and their impact on minimum wage workers, and the increased use of local infrastructure.

TMX said 15 respondents indicated they didn’t have any concerns about the company’s use of accommodation between August 1st and Oct 31st, 2023 — a logical response as there were just 300 workers projected to be living in Valemount in August and the anticipated amount dwindled to just 70 in October. The other 17 per cent said they were concerned by the lack of local accommodation. 

When asked if they were aware of any increased use of local rentals after the Valemount camp closed in May 2023, 83 per cent said no and 17 per cent said yes.

The survey also asked if respondents knew if there was more usage of local goods and services after the Valemount Camp closed, to which 94 per cent said they weren’t aware and the remaining six per cent said they were.

“The community and targeted survey results confirmed Trans Mountain’s workforce accommodation approach in the Village of Valemount and did not point to any changes in approach,” the company said.

TMX said neither the company or its contractors track or could track the number of non-local workers specifically staying in commercial or private rentals, but it understands workers were staying in a range of commercial accommodation properties and rental options.

“During the July 2020 to March 2023 period, more than $148 million in living out allowance has been focused in the North Thompson region, which reflects a substantial economic benefit in terms of spending in local businesses and regional economy,” TMX said.

However these living out allowances could have made it more difficult for other residents to find housing.

Mayor Owen Torgerson told The Goat in January 2022 the housing shortage situation essentially boiled down to housing availability for the spectrum of pay.

“If you’re making between $15 and $19 an hour there is a severe shortage of options for housing,” he said. “We have 800 additional pipeline workers that are not staying at a camp environment and are receiving $4500 a month in overall allowance. That gives them a tremendous advantage in finding a place to live.”

No corrective action

TMX said no corrective action was identified in regards to because the project was near completion in Valemount and the company anticipated its workforce to soon leave the area.

In its description of learnings requested by the CER, TMX said it had learned it was important to assess individual complaints against the balance of interests of the community as a whole and will “consider the value of enhanced engagement” when those interests are different.

The company said lessons learned from the project wouldn’t apply to other regions as every community along the pipeline’s corridor has its own socio-economic context, interests and capacity for worker accommodation. It added that it hasn’t received similar accommodation complaints in other project regions.

As for the corrective action plan detailing how it will make sure qualitative data will make its way into Socio-Economic Effects Monitoring Reports in the future, Trans Mountain said it will document issues raised in the two emails from the Valemount Affordable Rental Society and Housing Committee in its next Socio-Economic Effects Monitoring Plan in the North Thompson region, respond to complaints that it is copied on when the company hasn’t already received the complaint from the stakeholder, and document questions directed to the company or referring to the project in future presentations to elected officials.

“Trans Mountain will document responses to these questions. Reports of adverse socio-economic impacts emerging from such documentation would be included in future Socio-Economic Monitoring Reports,” the company said.

Read the full set of compliance documents below.