Grandmother questioned as a Kinder Morgan “terrorist threat” gets her day in Parliament

“I cannot fathom how they think I am a security risk.  It’s totally illogical,” says 71-year-old Lesslie Askin

Lesslie Askin - Burnaby Mountain oil storage tanks - Mychaylo Prystupa
71-year-old Lesslie Askin in front of oil storage tanks on Burnaby Mountain on Friday - Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa

A 71-year-old retired computer systems analyst and grandmother who was investigated as a national security threat for photographing aging oil tanks on Burnaby Mountain is amazed at how quickly her story as put her in the national spotlight, including on Parliament Hill.

“It was just stupid.  What the RCMP and Kinder Morgan did was just plain stupid,” said Lesslie Askin on Friday.

The News Westminster citizen, who is doing research for an upcoming National Energy Board hearing into the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, took the photos in early August.  The $5.4-billion pipeline would double the storage need for incoming Alberta bitumen oil.

Company security guards spotted her activity, and ten days later she got a visit from two RCMP officers at her home.

“I cannot fathom how they think I am a security risk.  It’s totally illogical,” said an exasperated Askin.

One of the investigators’ business cards showed the pair were with a secretive federal division called “E-INSET” -- a triad of RCMP, border, and CSIS officials, who work together to stop terrorists.

“They said, ‘what are you going to do with your photos?’

"I said, ‘I took them to attach to my letter of comment to the NEB on the Kinder Morgan pipeline hearing."

"I kind of reserve the right to do whatever I want with them.  I took them on public property.”

A 2011 RCMP report, recently obtained by an access to information request, shows federal authorities worry that environmental groups "pose a clear and present criminal threat to Canada’s energy sector.” 

But Askin says she is not a member of any advocacy group, and has no criminal record.

"I was appalled that they had not done any due diligence to determine that I was just not a risk.”

Terrorism push questioned in Parliament

Burnaby-Douglas M.P. Kennedy Stuart took up her cause in the House of Commons on Friday, asking the Harper government:

“We know the Conservatives are going after charities that disagree with them—but now grandmothers?”

“The people who oppose Kinder Morgan are not foreign radicals,” said the New Democrat.

M.P. Roxanne James rose on behalf of the Minister of Public Safety and said, “The RCMP, like any policing agency in our country, investigates tips and complaints that are filed.”

“I also understand that this matter has been resolved.” 

Kinder Morgan Westridge Marine Terminal - Mychaylo Prystupa

Kinder Morgan Westridge Marine Terminal with green-painted oil tanks in background - Mychaylo Prystupa

Not resolved nearly enough for Askin.  She hopes all this will bring more attention on what worries her about Kinder Morgan's plans:

“The focal point of my issue is the condition of those tanks… it only takes one tank to blow.  It really does.  If we had an earthquake...”

She says she’s combed through Kinder Morgan’s 100-document NEB application – including some 15,000 pages.

“There’s nothing – nothing -- in that application about what they’re going to do to test [the old tanks], and remediate them.”

She says the company has not provided “incontrovertible evidence” that the aging tanks, first built 60 years ago before Askin was a teenager -- still have structural integrity.

Askin initially applied to the NEB to be a full intervener – with the ability to call witnesses, and cross-examine.  But like hundreds like her, she was downgraded to a commentator for not being “directly affected.”

The moves are part of recent Harper government changes put in law to expedite the approval of large resource projects.

“The NEB hearing process is heavily biased in favour of Kinder Morgan – there’s just no doubt about it.  It’s legislated that way.  I don’t think anyone disputes that.  The question is, will it still work as it is?  I don’t think so.”

Following this “national security" run-in with terrorist investigators, Askin said she believes the Harper government is too closely aligned with the oil industry.

“It appears that Kinder Morgan has better access to the RCMP than you or I do.”

Kinder Morgan did not respond to requests for comment, but told the CBC:

“Our top priority remains the security and safety of our operations, staff and the community.  It is our security protocol to record and file an internal report of any suspicious activities surrounding our facilities and to inform the RCMP of the incident.”

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