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When BC Hydro Wants Your Land

An excerpt from Sarah Cox's new book on Site C describes one farming family's experience with expropriation.

By Sarah Cox 3 May 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Sarah Cox is an award-winning journalist who covers issues related to energy and the environment. Excerpted with permission from Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley's Stand against Big Hydro, by Sarah Cox, 2018, On Point Press, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada.

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Ken and Arlene sit at their kitchen table looking at BC Hydro maps of their third-generation family farm, expropriated for Site C. Photo by Louis Bockner.

(The following excerpt is from "Chapter 11: Fight or Flight")

As Arlene harvested grapes and corn from her family garden in late August 2016, the Boons received a package from BC Hydro. It was a draft offer to buy most of the couple's property, the cover letter explained, and to do so without prejudice, meaning that BC Hydro would not be beholden to the terms if the case wound up in court. The letter was adroitly worded. It sounded more like a polite invitation to an event than an ultimatum.

The letter mentioned nothing about compelling the Boons to sell, or what would happen if they declined the offer. "BC Hydro requires the acquisition of the rights for the re-alignment of Highway 29 by the end of this year," it simply said. Signed by Thomas Brent, BC Hydro's new property representative, the buyout offer was in the Boons' inbox when they returned to the house after harvesting barley and oats and checking on their Bear Flat campground, where BC Hydro's plan called for the new highway to run right through the cook shack and shower buildings.

For several weeks, the offer lay dormant in the computer on the Boons' shared desk in their little office adjoining the kitchen. If they reached out the office window, they could almost touch the centre line of the planned new highway, next to their woodshed. From the window, Arlene could see the renovated schoolhouse where her mother had lived, and just beyond that, the apple and pear trees in a corner of her garden, fenced to keep out the deer, moose, and elk. A few months earlier, her mother, Caroline Bentley, had decided she did not want her final years to be shrouded in uncertainty and tension and had moved to Fort St. John. Arlene worried about her mother, who had spent the past 60 years living on farms. But there was nothing she could do to dissuade her from the move. Listening to noisy drilling rigs, and watching a seemingly endless parade of BC Hydro contractors flow past her kitchen and living room windows, as workers spent weeks testing the geological properties of the family farm and marking out the new highway's centre line, had taken its psychological and emotional toll.

For the first time, the Boons were unsure what to do. They had always known what to do before: fight Site C. Write letters. Stay informed. Speak out. Resist. They had asked BC Hydro many questions about the highway relocation, and months later they were still waiting for most of the answers. So many things were up in the air. But the Boons knew one thing for certain: they could not ignore that letter.

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Sarah Cox

The landowners were informed that they had two options for expropriation. They could sign an agreement called a Section 3, which would give BC Hydro the opportunity to announce that it had reached agreement with the Cache Creek property owners over expropriation terms, or they could refuse to sign. Either way, they would lose their home. Refusing to sign a Section 3 expropriation agreement could leave the Boons in an even more compromised position, their lawyer warned, for they might forfeit any say in the terms of any residential and farming lease that could allow them to remain in their home and farm for another season.

Arlene wondered if they would have enough money to buy another farm, even one that did not have expansive views of the valley and a microclimate that allowed her to harvest strawberries and grapes at the tail end of September. Her next grandchild was on the way, providing yet another compelling reason to stay close. The Boons might be able to move somewhere farther uphill in the valley, out of the reservoir and sloughing zones, and buy property owned by another family member or a neighbour. But what would it be like to live so close to the reservoir, to see the valley inundated, to witness the destruction of so many things dear to them? Noise from the angle of the new highway might be very disruptive, and no one could predict what living next to the reservoir would be like as the river banks collapsed, fomenting waves and dust. For safety reasons, BC Hydro had said that people would not be able to venture near the lip of the reservoir for years after its creation. There were so many unknowns. "We're kind of on the cusp now," Ken said. "It's not a rosy picture, that's for sure."

[A] civil lawsuit had stopped the Boons from granting permission to valley residents, First Nations members, and others to camp on their land to block work on the new highway. It would have been much easier to set up a camp like the Rocky Mountain Fort protest on their side of the valley, close to food and shelter. It would also have been much more visible, especially in the summer. But the Boons worried they would face criminal records and even jail time if they agreed to let others stage a protest on their land. The $420 million in potential damages stemming from the civil suit was constantly on their minds.

Arlene admitted to being tired, and it was not the kind of tired that can be fixed with a few good nights' sleep, but the bone-deep exhaustion of living with acute stress and uncertainty for far too many years. The fight had been gruelling. Now she had to consider the prospect of flight.

The following month, in September 2016, the Peace Valley Landowners Association lost its Site C appeal in the BC Supreme Court. The ruling was a bit of a head-scratcher, according to Ken. He also called it a "dangerous precedent" and "pretty scary." The landowners had argued that the BC government had failed to consider key recommendations made by the Joint Review Panel, including that the project be examined by the BC Utilities Commission. But the court ruled that the government was not bound to consider that panel's recommendations.

The ruling raised the sticky question of why the B.C. government was devoting considerable time and money to environmental assessments in the first place, if there was no requirement for it to heed the resulting conclusions and follow the key recommendations. "This one comes right out of left field and leaves one wondering what good is the environmental assessment process," commented Ken. "It really turns out to be a rubber stamp process if government doesn't have to consider key recommendations."

The Boons had little time to digest that news, however, before another pressing issue swept them up. Two weeks before the court decision, BC Hydro had filed a notice in the local paper, the Alaska Highway News, advising the public that it had applied to the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) for another "licence of occupation" to cut and clear forest and vegetation. In keeping with procedure, BC Hydro's application for a licence of occupation was made to FNLRO's FrontCounter B.C. division, a "single window service for clients." Once again, a Crown corporation that took its marching orders from the provincial cabinet had applied to a government ministry that also took its marching orders from cabinet, requesting a permit it would undoubtedly receive.

Ken tracked down a map of the application area. Yellow lines demarcated the next zone on the Site C chopping block. The lines indicated that clear-cutting and bulldozing would soon take place all the way from what the locals called Eagle Island, just upstream from the Rocky Mountain Fort site, right up to the Boons' property line at Cache Creek, about 20 kilometres distant. The application - one of many staged applications for Site C clear-cutting - covered 1,225 hectares of Crown land along the banks of the Peace River, an area six times the size of Vancouver's West End. It included known nesting areas for migratory bird species vulnerable to extinction, like the Canada Warbler, and three of the rare tufa seeps.

BC Hydro said the clearing was necessary to prepare for any flooding that might ensue three years later, in the fall of 2019, when the Peace River was scheduled to be diverted through tunnels to dry out the river bed so that work on the dam structure could begin. The application for a licence of occupation required a public comment period, and the Boons and many others dutifully outlined their concerns about the impact the logging would have on the tufa seeps, rare and endangered wildlife, and the valley's First Nations and farming community. But the licence, as expected, was duly granted. The public comment period had been merely a formality. UBC professor Karen Bakker said that while she didn't want to seem overly cynical, she could only conclude that "BC Hydro and the provincial government want to be seen as going through the motions, and this is going through the motions."

For the Boons, it was another punch among so many.  [Tyee]

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