Alta. family fights for court costs after battle with oil company
By Jamie Komarnicki
CALGARY — Six years ago, the Ball Ranch near the small community of Bragg Creek, Alta., experienced its worst calving season in memory.
“We had weak calves, premature calves, sick calves, dead calves and we lost some cows, as well,” said Susan Graham, who runs the ranch with her husband, Craig, and her mother, Agnes Ball, 72.
“We had never experienced anything like that with our herd — ever.”
The decimated herd was the latest blow in a mounting battle pitting the small ranching family against one of the nation’s largest corporations.
It’s a fight some legal experts describe as the oil-and-gas industry playing “hardball.”
Recently, a Calgary judge ruled in the ranchers’ favour.
A Court of Queen’s Bench justice found in December that an Imperial Oil pipeline leak exposed a portion of the family’s cattle to hydrocarbon contamination.
The two parties were in court Thursday to argue over costs.
An Imperial Oil spokesman declined to comment on the case but said the company is proud of its relationship with local communities.
“We take great pride in our environmental record, particularly in maintaining positive relationships with our neighbours, which makes this case particularly troubling,” Pius Rolheiser said.
Nigel Bankes, chairman of natural resources law at the University of Calgary, suggested the judge’s ruling indicates the case could have been settled out of court “without putting the family to the cost, expense and emotions associated with proving a case in court.
“What that suggests is oil and gas companies will play hardball with landowners,” Bankes said.
The dispute began in the summer of 2002, when Agnes Ball returned from a weekend vacation to find a massive pit dug near a sour gas pipeline running through land where some of her cattle grazed. The leased land has been in the family since the 1940s, she said.
She said an Imperial employee later told her it was doing some work on a sour gas pipeline.
Cattle were grazing nearby, she said.
“I was furious,” Ball said Thursday.
The family’s concerns over contamination mounted.
When the calving season proved disastrous, they decided to take further action.
After repeatedly tangling with the company, Ball launched a lawsuit against Imperial Oil in 2004.
Family members insist that if they had known about the pipeline work and contaminated soil and water, they would have moved the cattle — and avoided the crushing calving season and damage to their herd that followed.
In December, the judge awarded the family nearly $70,000 in damages.
Their lawyer argued Thursday in court that the ranchers deserved as much as $150,000 for legal costs.
“If the David is ever intended or able to take on the Goliath, so to speak, costs do need to be acknowledged at the outcome of this decision,” said Spencer Bates outside of court.
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