Site C is the most expensive publicly funded infrastructure project in British Columbia’s history and the dam’s construction is being spearheaded by BC Hydro, a publicly owned hydroelectric utility whose sole shareholder is the provincial government.
That ought to mean that our elected leaders and civil servants place the highest priority on keeping on top of everything that goes on at Site C, because ultimately all British Columbians must pay for the project.
But there is an even more compelling reason why our government must be fully and effectively engaged on this project. All dams built in British Columbia must, by provincial statute, be designed, built and maintained to the highest safety standards.
Dams do not fail often. But when they do, the losses can be devastating. Which is why B.C.’s dam safety regulation is in place, and why it falls to engineers and dam safety officials employed by the provincial government to ensure that all dams built in the province have structural integrity.
Unfortunately, this important responsibility has rarely been mentioned as Site C has careened from one set of problems to another.
First there was the troubling tension crack that opened a gaping maw on the north riverbank following initial excavation work in 2017, leading to the removal of millions of cubic metres of additional earth to stabilize a clearly unstable bank.
Then there was problem after problem drilling the project’s diversion and drainage tunnels, as portions of the concrete liners anchored to the tunnel walls gave way and crashed to the tunnel floors — incidents later attributed to the soft shale that dominates the site.
Then a host of geotechnical troubles emerged on the south riverbank, where well over 1.7 million tons of concrete had been poured to form a 70-metre-high buttress that will support critical components of the dam, including its powerhouse and spillway. The fickle shale that all that weight was placed on shifted, and now very expensive enhancements are needed to stabilize the heavy structure before it moves further.
These problems and more underscore that Site C is being built in one stinker of a location, and that the harsh geological realities at the project site demand extra vigilance by our government.
Yet we see little evidence that is happening, and indeed we fear that it hasn’t happened since construction activities began at Site C more than five years ago.
When the first shovels were sunk into the ground at Site C in 2015, the government required BC Hydro to retain an “independent engineer” for the project’s duration. That independent professional was then to report directly to engineers and dam safety officials employed by the provincial government. Those public servants were then to carefully scrutinize each report before deciding whether or not to issue permits allowing BC Hydro to proceed to each new phase of construction at the project.
Obviously, for such a regulatory framework to work the independent engineer must be truly independent.
Unfortunately, as recent research by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals, BC Hydro nominated Tim Little to be Site C’s independent engineer and the government deemed him to be an “appropriate and satisfactory” choice for the job.
Little not only worked for years in senior positions for BC Hydro, including a stint as chief engineer, but immediately upon leaving salaried employment with the Crown corporation he became a consultant working on BC Hydro projects.
What that means is that the B.C. government has knowingly taken key advice on Site C from an engineer with longstanding ties to BC Hydro.
That’s troubling enough. But the CCPA also obtained one report that Little submitted to the government that recommended a radical shift in how a key component of the dam was to be built.
In the report, Little flagged that major delays had occurred building a critically important drainage tunnel on the south bank of the river. The dam’s original construction plans called for the tunnel to be completed before any concrete was poured, because the tunnel would draw water away from the heavy concrete and prevent it from moving.
But due to lengthy delays in getting the tunnel built, pressure was mounting on Site C’s main civil works contractor — Peace River Hydro Partners — to pour the concrete without the tunnel first being completed.
Little noted in his report that BC Hydro had recommended that concrete be poured ahead of the tunnel being complete, and he then supported the recommendation of his former employer. Only a matter of hours after Little submitted his report to provincial authorities, permission was granted to proceed with the radically altered construction schedule.
The speed at which public servants tasked with ensuring the safety of our dams effectively rubber-stamped Little’s recommendation is to us disturbing in and of itself. Even more disturbing is that we now have a host of very complex geotechnical problems at the location that increase the safety concerns of the project.
This naturally raises questions. To date, Little has filed 174 reports with recommendations to provincial engineers and dam safety officials. In each case, those reports required provincial civil servants to make decisions, including granting BC Hydro permission to proceed to each new phase of construction at Site C.
What did Little’s reports say? What did public servants do in response? And what did those same public servants tell either the energy minister (who is responsible for BC Hydro) or the forests minister (who is responsible for dam safety) or their deputies?
As other independent research confirms, the government has known about project risks and geotechnical problems at Site C for some time. These problems did not suddenly appear on the government’s radar in late July, when Energy Minister Bruce Ralston disclosed publicly that geotechnical problems had emerged at Site C and that Peter Milburn, a former deputy minister of finance, had been appointed to look at the troubled project with a fresh set of eyes.
Less than two months later, Premier John Horgan called a provincial election. The government was conveniently able to sidestep the Site C issue during much of the campaign by saying that a former senior civil servant was looking into things.
Milburn is not a geotechnical engineer and does not have experience building a hydroelectric dam and generating station.
With $6 billion already spent on Site C and another $6 billion to $8 billion remaining to be spent, British Columbians must have confidence that their government is managing this project with safety foremost in mind. We doubt that Milburn’s report will instil such confidence.
If the government really wants to assure the public that safety is the top priority at Site C, it is time to immediately suspend construction of the dam while a truly independent panel of experts assesses all geotechnical and safety risks at the site, as well as the government’s oversight of the project.