Opinion

A Tyee Series

The Case against the Site C Dam

A reporter's Peace River journey against a powerful current of dubious assumptions and official spin. First of five parts this week.

By Max Fawcett, 5 Apr 2010, TheTyee.ca

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Slated for execution? Photo: Wayne Sawchuk, Northern Images.

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For the third time in less than 30 years, the Peace River Valley is slated for execution. After two aborted attempts to build a third dam on the Peace River, located in the northeast corner of the province, the provincial government has signaled its intent to once again pursue the controversial project. Those with an interest in the so-called Site C project won't have to wait much longer to find out its fate, either. According to news reports, a final decision on whether the dam will advance to the environmental assessment stage and one step closer to construction will be made at some point this spring.

The dam, BC Hydro says, will provide the province with a new source of clean, green energy, one that is essential if the government is to meet both the commitments of its long-term energy plan and its promise to build new sources of renewable power. Its construction would pay significant local dividends as well, the government argues, as it would provide approximately 8,000 man-years of employment over a seven-year construction period to a part of the province that desperately needs the work.

But while the project's utilitarian calculus might satisfy the decision makers in the provincial government and at BC Hydro, it is decidedly less popular among those who stand to be directly affected by its construction, from those who live in the Peace River Valley to residents of the surrounding communities of Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge, Hudson's Hope, and Dawson Creek. In the Peace, where the consequences of the dam's construction will be felt most intimately, the ends come nowhere close to justifying the means. In fact, to many of its 22,000 residents, Site C is nothing more than a case of the Robin Hood principle in reverse, the rich stealing from the poor without even having the decency to look them in the eye while they're doing it.

Origins of the dam plan

The idea of creating a third major hydroelectric dam on the Peace River, one that would join the massive W.A.C. Bennett Dam and the smaller Peace Canyon Dam that lies downstream from it, first arose in the early 1970s. After examining a few different sites on the Peace River near Fort St. John, BC Hydro settled on the so-called "Site C" located seven kilometers southwest of Fort St. John. The proposed kilometre-long earth fill dam, which BC Hydro estimates would cost somewhere between $5 and $6.6 billion to build, would deliver enough electricity to power approximately 460,000 homes. The reservoir that would produce that power, an 83 kilometre-long behemoth deep enough to submerge even the tallest building in Vancouver, would flood an estimated 5,340 hectares of land, the equivalent of almost 34,000 hockey rinks.

In 1980, BC Hydro applied for an Energy Project Certificate to allow it to build the Site C dam. The then-newly formed B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) held numerous hearings on the issue, listening to over 70 witness panels at formal hearings and 100-plus representatives at local and special First Nations meetings. Ultimately, the BCUC wasn't persuaded by the government's arguments in favour of the dam, noting that it had failed to provide both a load forecast that demonstrated the importance of building the dam, and a comparison of the available alternatives and the social, environmental, construction, and engineering costs attached to each. On Nov. 9, 1983, the BCUC ruled that the cabinet should defer issuing a certificate until those questions were addressed. Soon afterwards, premier Bill Bennett spiked the project. 
But while advocates of Site C may have lost that particular battle with local interests, they were still making preparations to the win the war. Just three years later, BC Hydro signed a "study agreement" with a U.S. federal energy agency and several utilities in the Pacific Northwest and California that resulted in a 1987 report concluding a market for power from Site C existed in the U.S. The study agreement referred to Hydro's willingness to consider building the dam and "allocating power generated... in excess of domestic requirements for export to the United States under long term contracts having economic benefit to British Columbia."

In 1989, BC Hydro began holding public consultations on building the dam, but those quickly died out as the combination of political instability and economic turmoil made the project unfeasible. In a 1993 interview with the Vancouver Sun, BC Hydro's president said the Site C project was "dead" because it was too costly and environmentally unacceptable.

Listening to the people of the Peace

Last October, I arrived in the Peace Region right as the latest attempt to revive the Site C Dam was about to reach a critical juncture. After a four day trip from Toronto in early October that was mercifully light on both snowfall and speeding tickets, I piloted my 1995 Honda Accord across the British Columbia border and into the Peace, headed for the small resource town of Chetwynd and a job there as the editor of the town's weekly newspaper. I had prepared myself for the challenges of small town life in northern British Columbia, from the bad food and even worse coffee to the need to install something called a block heater in my car, but I didn't expect to find myself right in the middle of a modern day retelling of the biblical story of David and Goliath. That this particular Goliath was a crown corporation that I had grown up thinking of as a benevolent giant, a friendly behemoth that provided British Columbians like me with cheap, green electricity, made the discovery even more surprising.

Like most people who grew up in the Lower Mainland, the only interactions that I had ever had with BC Hydro were in the form of my surprisingly inexpensive electricity bills. I regarded BC Hydro as a kind of golden goose, one that delivered low-cost, environmentally-friendly electrical power to the province without significantly disturbing any of the rivers, streams, or lakes that provided it. But outside the Lower Mainland, and particularly in small and remote parts of the province like the Peace River Valley, that fiction isn't nearly as easy to maintain, nor the less desirable aspects of BC Hydro's influence to ignore. The lakes, rivers, and streams that BC Hydro dammed up to generate the electricity that me and my friends in the Lower Mainland used to power our computers, video game systems, and television sets were right in their own back yards. They saw the costs associated with power generation, and were not nearly as willing to write them off in the name of the greater good.

I encountered this more complicated relationship between BC Hydro and some of its shareholders first-hand when I attended the local public consultation meeting on the proposed Site C Dam. It was early November, and I was still getting used to the rhythm of my new job and the people who would come to define it for me. I sat down at the long rectangular table in one of the Pomeroy Hotel's conference rooms, jotted down my name and position on the note card provided for me, and braced myself for what I thought would be a run-of-the-mill procedural exercise in which BC Hydro's well-dressed representatives would endure the unreasonable demands and incoherent observations made by the local cranks with the kind of grace that was expected of someone in their position.

But it quickly became clear to me that the cranks weren't being unreasonable, and that many of them weren't even cranks at all. BC Hydro's representatives, meanwhile, were treating them the way a parent might a colicky baby or a child throwing a temper tantrum; with measured, soothing responses, but ones that always betrayed a hint of irritation at the unreasonableness of the behaviour to which they were being subjected. What I saw reminded me of what I had left behind in Ottawa, and why I'd decided to leave it there, when I decided to quit a career in partisan politics in favour of one in journalism six years earlier. BC Hydro hadn't come to Chetwynd, Hudson's Hope, or any of the other communities that would be affected by the proposed Site C Dam to hear the concerns local residents might have about it. Instead, they were there to suppress them.

A consistent majority of 'no'

BC Hydro's representatives were applying the same cynical formula that I had seen used so many times in the interactions between elected officials and their constituents, one that sought to either minimize or marginalize the issues being raised by them. BC Hydro repeated this cynical exercise in communities across the Peace Region, from big cities like Fort St. John and Dawson Creek to small towns like Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd. The results of those meetings, as well as the voluntary online, telephone, or written feedback provided by area residents were rolled into a formal report on the public consultation process, a predictably sunny document that reserved the opposition expressed by local residents to the foot and end notes. In the end, the public consultation process for the proposed Site C Dam was in fact not a consultation at all, but instead what public opinion experts refer to as a push-poll, a heavily managed process that produces a predetermined outcome.

Yet despite the fact that they were never directly asked whether they wanted the dam or not, Peace region residents still managed to express their objections to it. When asked their opinion about a range of energy options that could be used to meet B.C.'s long-term needs, the construction of a new hydroelectric dam was viewed by far the most negatively, with 45 per cent of respondents indicating "strong opposition." Greater investment in the province's current assets, more aggressive conservation efforts, funding alternative energy sources, building power plants fired by natural gas, and even raising energy prices gradually to promote conservation were rated more positively by Peace Region residents than the construction of another major dam.

Interestingly, when the question was rephrased and the dam was presented as a last resort ("Site C should be considered if conservation, refitting existing equipment and investments in new sources, including sustainable energy, were not going to be enough to meet the energy demands of consumers and business in B.C.") Peace Region residents still voted against the dam, with 40 per cent expressing strong opposition to only 33 per cent voicing strong support. Despite these figures, though, BC Hydro still passed the process off as an unqualified success, a vote in support of the dam's construction.

Why were so many people in the Peace Region opposed to the Site C Dam, a project that ostensibly provided low-cost and environmentally friendly power to the province? To find out, I travelled the hour-long drive from Chetwynd along Highway 29 through the town of Hudson's Hope and down to Bear Flat, a tiny farming outpost along the Peace River just a few minutes west of Fort St. John. I was heading to Bear Flat to talk with Ken and Arlene Boon, Sandra Hoffman, and Ken Forest, who together formed the nucleus of the Peace Valley Environment Association, an organization created in 1975 to oppose the first incarnation of the Site C Dam and one that has been fighting it ever since.

In the Boons' kitchen

It was one of those magical early October days in the Peace, one last serving of the dying summer's warmth that when compared with the long winter and short days that were already on their way made its influence feel like that of a strong narcotic. Even the jittery crowds of deer that hang out along the side of the highway seemed pacified by the good weather, temporarily uninterested in the game of chicken that they so enjoy playing with the cars that travel along the narrow line of pavement that bisects their territory. I made a left off Highway 29 just passed Bear Flat and pulled my car up the bumpy dirt road of the Boon property, past the work site where some men were working on the small pre-fab log cabins that they produce, and up to the front of their house, hounded for the last twenty metres or so by two rambunctiously friendly dogs. We sat down in the kitchen of their modest log house, one that sits just inches above the proposed dam's flood plain. After dealing with the introductory pleasantries, we began to discuss what the project meant for and to them.

For Boon, Forest, and Hoffman, Site C represents an abrogation of duty on the part of the province's public utility. In trying to downplay the costs associated with the project and refusing to seriously consider the available alternatives, BC Hydro, they believe, is acting less in the public's interest than in its own.

"Here's their greater good," said Ken Forest, a retired school principal who has lived with his wife in the Peace River Valley since the early 1970s. "We're willing to flood the entire valley, throw people out that have been there since the 1900s, and are taxpayers and have never had a problem, we're going to displace First Nations again, we're going to eliminate our tourism and wildlife and agricultural abilities in the valley, in exchange for 70 to 100 years of power, all of which will be exported to the United States or the tar sands.

"The result of that," Forest continued, "is profit for the province, 90 per cent of which ends up in the Lower Mainland, and we end up with the mess. What do we get in exchange? We get five to seven years of jobs, most of which will be tendered and given to people outside of this area."

Tomorrow: The conversation in the Boons' kitchen continues, including the question: Why drown a vital breadbasket?  [Tyee]

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