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Farmers jeer, bands cheer Bipole III

Ag groups unite to protect land; natives laud jobs

At one end, farmers are banding together to get Manitoba Hydro to respect property rights, while at the other, a small aboriginal community is celebrating that up to 50 of its members will soon be employed clearing land.

Such is Bipole III, the 1,400-kilometre high-voltage transmission line that is in the early stages of construction. The line, estimated two years ago to cost $3.28 billion, will run from Hydro's northern dams on the Nelson River down the west side of the province and hook south around Winnipeg to the new Riel converter station east of the city.

It's the southern end of the line that's got recent attention -- including from RCMP -- as farmers organize themselves to restrict Hydro surveyors from working on their land.

Brunkild farmer Jurgen Kohler of the BiPole III Landowner Committee said the issue isn't so much about stopping Hydro from building the new line, but to protect their valuable canola crops from devastating soil diseases. The line is to cross Kohler's land.

"They're surveying the land right now and they weren't supposed to go into the land and survey it before we have this bio-security protocol in place," Kohler said recently. "They just went ahead."

Kohler said landowners have recently teamed up with the Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations (CAEPLA) to negotiate a recognition of property rights and a bio-security protocol with Hydro.

CAEPLA is a national organization that advocates on behalf of farmers, ranchers and other rural landowners to negotiate agreements with pipeline and power-line companies.

Kohler said at risk are future canola crops in the area, which could be ruined because of clubroot, a soil-borne disease that can be transferred or spread on contaminated vehicle tires. Clubroot has been found in Alberta, but not in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

"We're not anti-development," Kohler said. "We know the line is coming. We don't want to stop it. We want to work with Hydro to make this a win-win so they can go ahead and do their business and we can carry on with our small family farms."

The dispute with farmers and Hydro escalated last week near St. Claude when Hydro workers called RCMP to complain about being harassed. No charges were laid.

Manitoba Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said RCMP were called in to verify that the Land Surveyors Act permitted surveyors to access property legally and to ensure local residents were aware of it.

Schneider also said Hydro has developed a bio-security policy with input from Manitoba Agriculture and several agricultural-industry groups so staff and contractors take appropriate steps to ensure no transfer of soil diseases.

Kohler and 250 landowners are going to be affected by the new line. The hope is to meet with Hydro in the new year to reach an agreement.

"We are just pooling our resources together and saying let's negotiate the best easement agreement we can with Manitoba Hydro," he said.

Further north, Hydro has recently reached a $12-million agreement with Pine Creek First Nation on the west shore of Lake Winnipegosis.

Chief Charlie Boucher said the deal will allow up to 50 people from his community to get jobs helping to clear the right-of-way for Bipole III. Under the agreement, the community has partnered with a heavy-equipment company. Work is to start Jan. 9.

Boucher said the agreement with Hydro is significant as it's the first time Pine Creek will participate in a major hydro construction project.

"We have probably 120 applications that we're going to screen and go through this Friday," said Boucher, who pointed out about 95 per cent of band members are unemployed or on social assistance.

"Pine Creek has never entered into this kind of relationship. We found a way to get there. It's excellent that we have this opportunity to subsidize the situation we're in financially every day in Pine Creek. We're overwhelmed," Boucher said.

Schneider said the Crown corporation is having discussions with other First Nations regarding similar work.

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