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BC Politics

It’s Horgan’s Folly. But We’ll All Pay

The Site C dam already faced big delays and cost overruns. Now we should be worried about threats to public safety.

Andrew Nikiforuk 24 Aug 2020 |

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

In this pandemic summer you may not have paid attention to BC Hydro’s belated filing of two disturbing reports on the Site C dam. The reports cited big problems with costs, in part because of the notoriously unstable shales of the Peace River Valley.

In 1957, those sloping shales took out a nearby bridge with a landslide just downstream from the dam’s location. And landslides have dogged the nearby community of Old Fort since 2018.

Now BC Hydro is reporting “geotechnical issues” and acknowledging “foundation enhancements would be required to increase the stability below the powerhouse, spillway and future dam core areas.”

The additional cost, it says, is unknown.

As a result, Marc Eliesen, the former CEO of BC Hydro and Ontario Hydro, now thinks that British Columbians will soon be calling the troubled megaproject “Horgan’s Folly.”

“It not only is his baby, but his folly,” says Eliesen. “This is a project that should never have gone ahead.”

Eliesen, who knows a thing or two about dams, has been sounding the alarm about the controversial megaproject for years.

He says there’s enough evidence in BC Hydro’s recent reports to halt the project and demand a full public inquiry into public safety and unstable geology.

“It is never too late to stop a dam for safety reasons,” he said.

Eliesen’s critical observations on the project so far have been thoroughly prophetic. 

In 2017, for example, he warned the BC Utilities Commission that the project was already over budget, suffered from major geotechnical issues and had been rushed into approval based on overstated and inaccurate electricity demand forecasts.

He was right about all those things.

But Horgan didn’t listen to Eliesen or to the sober findings of a 2017 BCUC inquiry that pointed out that there were cheaper energy alternatives.

Other technical reports also concluded the dam was not needed and there was a high risk of delays and cost overruns because it was being built on shale rock that likes to move and slip over time. 

Horgan ignored that evidence when his government decided to continue construction in December 2017.

And he ignored the “the iron law of megaprojects,” which states they will be over budget, late and deliver fewer benefits than promised.

In so doing, he turned what was former premier Christy Clark’s authoritarian folly (she pushed it ahead without proper economic and safety reviews) into his own singular Waterloo. 

Unfortunately, Horgan’s decision could cost BC Hydro customers and the province billions in fiscal, environmental and reputational liabilities.

“Horgan played old-style politics and now this project is his folly, unquestionably,” says Eliesen.

The tardy reports filed with the BC Utilities Commission revealed, as Eliesen and other critics predicted years ago, that significant geotechnical problems have blown up the dam’s cost and schedule. 

Here’s what the report for 2019 said in the understated and muted language of engineers.

The issue of unstable shales, which had dogged the left bank diversion tunnels, “has always been a risk.” Now these same volatile shales had “materialized on the right bank.” Imagine that.

The report added that in December “investigations and analysis of geological mapping and monitoring activities during construction” discovered that unstable shales had created significant problems, undermining stability “below the powerhouse, spillway and future dam core areas.”

“Foundation enhancements” — lots more concrete work — would be needed. BC Hydro said it doesn’t know the costs of these enhancements or if the fixes would work. 

Meanwhile BC Hydro said it continues to work with the Site C technical advisory board and the project assurance board to determine “the appropriate enhancement measures.” 

Imagine for a moment that you are building a pool in your backyard. Your contractor informs you that your pool, along with its drainage and filtration systems, had unfortunately been located on unstable shales and might leak or slip into someone’s else’s backyard.

Your contractors, well into construction, explain they might come up with some “foundation enhancements,” but have no idea what they’ll cost or if they’ll work. But a project assurance board, which they control and direct, will look into the matter, the contractor promises.

That’s exactly what BC Hydro has done. It reported the geotechnical and cost risks to its project assurance board in January.

But it didn’t tell the public — the BC Hydro customers and taxpayers paying for the project — until late July.

And what do we know about the so-called project assurance board supposedly set up by Horgan to warn ratepayers about problems, risks and cost over runs so Site C wouldn’t become another Muskrat Falls fiasco? That hydro megaproject threatens to bankrupt Newfoundland.

Well, as Sarah Cox reported in The Narwhal, the board doesn’t issue public reports.

“Six BC Hydro directors sit on the assurance board, according to court documents,” she wrote. “They include John Nunn, who was Site C project’s chief project engineer. Nunn worked for the engineering and consulting firm Klohn Crippen Berger, a Vancouver-based company that holds a current contract, along with SNC-Lavalin, for “design services” on the Site C project.”

So Nunn gets to check on his work.

“How is that not a scandal in a democracy?” asks Lindsay Brown, a long-time critic of the dam.

Eliesen asks a similar question. “Who are these people on the board and what are they doing? They were supposed to be a safety valve.”

And shouldn’t the independent BC Utilities Commission be providing this oversight?

But the bad news doesn’t stop there.

The second late report talks about a project status dashboard with three kinds of warning lights. (Engineers need dashboards like a house foundation needs concrete.) Green indicates “on target,” while yellow signifies “moderate issues.” Red, of course, warns of “at risk.”

BC Hydro is tracking progress on 12 major categories at the megaproject. Four are now code red. The “at risks” include overall project health, scope, schedule and cost.

In plain English, the megaproject has encountered megaproblems involving the instability of Peace River shales, forcing megacosts, megadelays and megamodifications of the design. 

None of this should come as a surprise. A 1991 geological study laid out the realities. “All the major terrain slopes present in the eastern Peace River region are subject to slope failure,” the researchers said. “Extreme caution should therefore be observed in any effort to exploit or utilize river slopes.”

851px version of 960px version of new-site-c-main-image.jpg
The Site C dam’s novel L-shaped design creates risks that demand an independent safety review, says retired BC Hydro engineer Vern Ruskin. Photo: BC Hydro.

Vern Ruskin, a retired BC Hydro engineer who helped build 10 dams for the corporation in the 1950s and 1960s when it was called BC Electric, pointed out these risks during the 2017 BCUC inquiry.

Ruskin made several critical points.  

He warned that the dam’s unique L-shape design (the new design was introduced in 2010 or 2011) deserved an independent safety review because it represented a costly departure from the normal curve-shaped dam first proposed in 1982.

The BCUC  “would be ethically, morally and possibly legally, responsible for any damage to residents’ life, health and property caused downstream of the current Site C dam, whether through defects or negligence in, design, construction, or due to floods, rain, mudslides or earthquakes if the current Site C dam a) continues or b) is suspended and restarted later,” he wrote.

So what began as a $3.3-billion curved dam under premier Gordon Campbell in 2005 became a $7.9-billion, L-shaped project under Clark. The new design added an additional $4-billion cost to the project, a great deal for contractors seeking longer and fatter pay cheques.

Under Horgan’s administration, the over-budget project has marched into $10.7-billion territory.

And now, based on the latest problems, it is likely to become a $15-billion fiasco — Horgan’s Folly.

Horgan’s government chose to ignore reality and mislead the public in a July 31 press release responding to BC Hydro’s distressing reports.

It didn’t mention the shale instability problems or the risks they created, but instead falsely blamed the mess at Site C on the pandemic. “COVID-19 has created significant challenges for the project that we could not have anticipated,” the release said.

That’s bull, and every BC Hydro customer should know it. Both reports covered problems and time periods that predated the pandemic. 

So follow Eliesen’s lead. Contact your MLA. Call for a halt to this project. And insist on a full public inquiry on the safety and geotechnical risks of an L-shaped earth fill dam on the unstable ground of the Peace River Valley — in a region unsettled by thousands of fracking earthquakes.  [Tyee]

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