A wire twisted into the shape of a cowboy hat swings wildly as Allen McEwan wrangles his truck along a gravel, pothole-ridden road. The bumps and sudden swerves don't bother him; he knows the terrain along the Upper Lillooet River in Pemberton well. He used to fell the cedars that whip by his vehicle and fill it with their fresh scent. Now he's fighting to save them, and the wilderness in which they grow.
The Upper Lillooet is set to be the site of an Independent Power Producer (IPP) hydroelectric project, which will divert water from it and nearby Boulder Creek to produce electricity.
"Almost every stream in the corridor is 'staked,' if you want to call it that," says McEwan of the region where his family has lived for four generations. He says IPPs have snatched up permits on rivers, creeks and streams with a "gold rush mentality."
This Monday, McEwan took fellow Pemberton resident and anti-IPP activist Louise Ludlam-Taylor, and the NDP candidate for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, Ana Santos, on a tour of the Upper Lillooet. Along the ride McEwan pointed out where salmon spawn on the left and where mountain goats tackle the rocky bluffs to the right.
He also eagle-eyed bright orange ribbons strapped to trees indicating the line of clear cutting where the transmission lines will be installed, and dodged a local forestry company's trucks getting a head start on a project yet to be fully approved. The Upper Lillooet River and Boulder Creek IPPs would produce over 100 megawatts of power delivered via 72 kilometres of transmission lines.
The project is in the hands of Creek Power Inc., a conglomeration of Innergex Renewable Energy Inc. and Ledcor Power Group Ltd. The former is a provincial IPP bigwig, operating 11 other run-of-river hydroelectric projects in British Columbia, and several more across Canada and the United States.
The provincial Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) issued a certificate of approval to Creek Power Inc. in January. The company is now awaiting its water licence and land tenure permits, which could be approved as early as this month.
According to Innergex's website, construction is set to begin in May. That is, if its opponents don't stand in the way.
'There are far too many risks'
"Overall, in Pemberton, we have seen solid support for the project," says Bas Brusche, spokesman for Innergex. "As with most run-of-the-river projects, there is not unanimous support in the community."
That division is reflected in the candidates now competing to represent the riding that includes the project. The favourite to win is three-time Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy, whose BC Liberals have pushed hard to increase IPPs across the province, selling the idea as a way to combat climate change by increasing renewable power sources using private investment. But Sturdy faces an NDP opponent with climate change credentials of her own -- Santos founded the Squamish Climate Action Network. Her party has promised a review of IPP policies.
Backing Innergex's IPP plans is the local Lil'wat First Nation.
But two advocacy groups have sprung up in opposition on environmental and economic grounds. Larger organizations such as the Pemberton Wildlife Association, Wilderness Committee and Watershed Watch Salmon Society, among others, have added their voices to the foray.
"The Upper Lillooet River project should not be proceeding, from an environmental [or] economical standpoint," says Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee. "There are far too many risks."
The Wilderness Committee was behind one of two letter-writing campaigns demanding the ministers of environment, and energy, mines and natural gas reject Innergex's Environmental Assessment Certificate. The ministers were also the recipients of a 300-plus signature petition. Pemberton is home to 2,300 people.
Ludlam-Taylor spearheaded a door-to-door campaign against the project, and has begun a weekly rally at the local supermarket. She is adamant about not calling the project a done deal until she's done everything possible to stop it.
The ferocity of the opposition to the Upper Lillooet River and Boulder Creek IPP projects stems largely from concern over impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat. The area is home to grizzly bears, wolverines, bull trout, cutthroat trout -- all of which are listed as being of "special concern" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada -- and the endangered coho salmon.
As noted in a memo by the Ministry of Forests and Natural Resource Operations' Ecosystems Section Head Scott Barrett, the Upper Lillooet River project will conflict with "several legally-established" Forest & Range Practices Act conservation areas protecting grizzlies, spotted owls, mountain goats, deer and moose.
The EAO found, however, that the project will not interfere with the Sea-to-Sky Land and Resource Management Plan, which details land use and resource management in the area.
Barrett also expressed concern over the project's potential effect on how the ministry "can manage species, ecosystems and other values' objectives in the future." The ministry was particularly concerned for the well-being of a precarious grizzly bear population in the area. Its current recovery could be stymied by the installation of transmission lines, busier road traffic (over 30 kilometres of new road is slated for construction) and increased human interaction.
Barlee calls it a "big concern" that the EAO ignored Barrett's -- a wildlife expert and government official -- cautions regarding impacts on grizzly bears.
As with most IPP projects, the effect on fish is of major concern as well. The Watershed Watch Salmon Society submitted a letter to the EAO outlining its evaluation of the risks the project poses to fish by severely depleting water levels (the project may divert up to 96 per cent of the water before returning it to the river), changing water levels too rapidly (known as "ramping"), blocking migration routes for cutthroat trout, and destroying coho salmon spawning habitat.
Changes to water levels will also impact Keyhole Falls, a favourite site of locals whose protection spawned the Friends of Keyhole Falls group. The degree of the project's effects on this landmark is in question. Barlee says "Keyhole Falls will be reduced to just a trickle" and Innergex studies found that in the summer months, the falls' flow could be decreased to as much as one-fifth of its original force. But Brusche noted in an email to The Tyee that a report from the executive director of the Environmental Assessment Office states: "The residual effect to visual quality of Keyhole Falls is low as the flow would always be maintained and few individuals visit Keyhole Falls."
Critics raise another worry about the project: a potential landslide. The terrain near Meager Creek, the nearby water body where the hydroelectric project is set to be built, is one of the most volatile geological areas in Canada. In 2010, it was home to the second largest landslide in recent Canadian history, an event that still has the Upper Lillooet flowing greenish brown water. Avalanches are common, too, in an area that will soon employ hundreds of workers.
The EAO is aware of these concerns, detailing them in a report thousands of pages long. Still, it determined that "none of the adverse residual effects were determined to be significant, after considering the mitigation measures that would become binding conditions of the Environmental Assessment Certificate."
Mitigation measures are often a component of the Environmental Assessment Certificates. They require the applicant to commit to actions that would, in theory, diminish the project's negative impact.
Innergex was issued 37 conditions, including maintaining water level minimums; preparing and following environmental protection and management plans, as well as ones for wildlife; monitoring the environmental well-being of the area; and being vigilant of construction's impact on wildlife. The Environmental Assessment further analyzes Innergex's plans to mitigate the impact of its project.
Barlee is unimpressed with the conditions. She says many of them should automatically apply to projects, such as maintaining water levels and setting up a public website with project information.
"It's kind of like giving yourself a pat on the back by saying, 'Hey, I got in my car today and I put on my seatbelt,'" she says. "You also need to make sure you have the brakes checked and that there's gas in the tank."
Barlee adds that a caveat requiring a company to monitor the area around its project isn't the same as dealing with negative effects. It means even less when the EAO doesn't have people on the ground checking up on these projects, she says.
Barlee is not the only one who had a cool reaction to the certificate conditions. Barrett, in his Ministry of Forests and Natural Resource Operations memo, expressed doubts that impacts to grizzly bear habitat will or can be properly mitigated. He noted that to turn existing or deactivated roads into permanent ones is not a mitigation measure, especially considering the detrimental effect of roads on bears.
The mitigations efforts for the bears is largely dependent on cooperation with the province's regional monitoring and management plans for the population. Aaron Hill, an ecologist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, says that such conditions are not so much commitments on the part of the company, but suggestions for wider-reaching conservation initiatives.
Brusche says Innergex acknowledges several conditions are dependent on the province to achieve, but also that: "We propose measures that we can manage [and] deal with."
Innergex must submit its environmental and wildlife management plans before beginning construction. The plans are in various stages of completion and approval.
One group is pleased with the proposed mitigation efforts. Lil'wat First Nation is a 2,000-person band, whose traditional territory rests on the project's land. The band's chief administrative officer, Curt Walker, says Innergex worked with the band council on its many studies leading up to the Environmental Assessment and suggested mitigation efforts wherever it had issues.
Walker says Innergex's mitigation efforts "provided us the comfort and gave our council the comfort to sign off on the project."
"We stick to the rules that have been given us," Brusche told The Tyee of Environmental Assessment Certificate conditions. "We will do anything that has been asked from us and we will do everything that we've promised."
But Barlee points to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Wilderness Committee that revealed numerous South Coast IPP projects failed to follow mitigation measures and report non-compliance to authorities. Six of Innergex's B.C. hydroelectric projects had ramping non-compliances in 2010, and one had 23 infractions related to improperly maintaining the water level. One case, at Ashlu Creek, resulted in stranded and killed fish. Innergex failed to notify officials of several of these incidents.
Brusche says most of the company's non-compliance incidents have not resulted in "adverse environmental effects." He does mention, however, two additional incidents at Ashlu in 2011 that led to over 150 dead fish, a "relatively low number."
"If there is non-compliance, you have to follow up and learn and avoid it," he says.
Brusche says the company hasn't committed an infraction resulting in adverse environmental effects in 21 months at any of its facilities.
"There's been, as far as we can tell, chronic non-compliance with a number of different existing river diversion projects in southern B.C. and there's no evidence that we have that this project would be any different," says ecologist Hill.
Opponents are also concerned about the cumulative effects of existing and potential hydroelectric projects in the same watershed.
"We're concerned about the lack of attention that's being paid generally to cumulative environmental impacts across the South Coast corner of B.C.," says Hill, "where there's a huge density of new and existing and proposed river diversion projects like this one."
There is disagreement among sources as to what IPP projects were taken into account when assessing Innergex's proposal.
The Environmental Assessment report indicates that three existing and 11 projects in the water licence application stage were considered, as well as local forestry, recreation, mining activity, geothermal tenures and residential development. However, the Watershed Watch Salmon Society says only four existing or proposed projects were assessed, and points to seven current water licences and 38 applications in the Upper Lillooet watershed.
Of particular concern is the potential for increased development on the Upper Lillooet tributary and key area for grizzly bears, the Ryan River. With a 230 kilovolts transmission line in the works for Innergex's project, it could prove to be a catalyst for other river diversions.
In relation to the watershed's many hydroelectric projects and their cumulative effects on wildlife habitat, Barrett had this to say in his Ministry of Forests and Natural Resource Operations memo: "We suggest that some statements asserting that the habitat disturbance is temporary [i.e. reversible] are misleading."
Tourists don't come 'to see an industrial site'
Whether or not the run-of-river project will be good for the local economy is hotly debated.
"Overall, I'd say it's a real positive development for the nation," says Walker of Lil'wat First Nation. "I think it provides important economic and employment opportunities both in the medium term and the long term."
Innergex and Lil'wat First Nation signed an Impact Benefit Agreement, which promises the latter milestone payments, revenue sharing, equity interest, contracting opportunities, employment and training, says Walker.
"We're working to get as many people as possible from the First Nation involved in working for the project, especially in the construction phase," confirms Brusche.
Innergex will also work with local companies and use local services and amenities as much as possible, says Brusche. Creek Power Inc. has an office in Pemberton that is currently accepting resumes. The construction phase will employ "several hundreds of people" says Brusche, over the course of three years. The Environmental Assessment report overstates the jobs during operation, though, saying three full-time and three part-time positions, while Brusche says employment will only amount to one or two people long-term.
Creek Power Inc. is a member of the Pemberton and District Chamber of Commerce whose president, Karen Ross, says the project will have a positive effect on Pemberton during the construction phase. She says she's not aware of any negative impacts on tourism or recreation in the area.
Other local companies disagree.
"The main economy in Pemberton is tourism. Tourism and industrial worksites do not go hand in hand," says Ray Mason, owner of Totally Awesome Adventures snowmobile tours. "I have clients that come from all over the world and they don't come here to see an industrial site."
Mason says the roads he uses for snowmobiling will be ploughed, putting them out of commission for his tours and lengthening his trek to good snowmobiling territory. He's also upset about seeing a "valley full of transmission lines."
Anna Helmer's of the same mindset. Since 2005 she's organized the annual Slow Food Cycle Sunday event, which attracts thousands of people to cycle through the Pemberton valley visiting farms and purchasing their products.
"These 4,000 people are not coming here to see power lines on the hillside," says Helmer.
She's worried about an increase in road traffic and heavy construction equipment further deteriorating an already rough road for cyclists. She's been participating in Ludlam-Taylor weekly market rallies.
"I think there's an application on every river in this valley," says Helmer, "and I find it embarrassing to be honest that we're being so gullible in accepting these things."
'Gluttonous' IPPs: NDP candidate
The NDP's Santos is from Bilboa, Spain, where, like many European countries, wild areas are few and far between. The founder of the Squamish Climate Action Network denounces the "gluttonous approach" the B.C. government has taken with IPP projects. She says it's important for the province to question whether it needs this form of power at all.
"[The New Democrats] are very clear they're going to be looking at every single project and every single contract, and making sure that if it doesn't make sense financially, environmentally and socially then the legal options have got to be explored," says Santos.
The NDP's full platform, released Wednesday, allocates five bullet points to BC Hydro, one of which echoes Santos's comment: "Within the limits of existing contracts, review Independent Power Project contracts to ensure British Columbians receive the best value for their dollars."
In what The Tyee called a BC Liberal stronghold, Santos is up against Liberal and three-term Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy and Conservative Ian McLeod. A Green Party spokesperson told The Tyee it hopes to announce a candidate in the West Vancouver-Sea to Sky riding soon.* The Tyee repeatedly requested an interview with Sturdy but did not hear back by deadline.
The pair of companies that make up Creek Power Ltd. have both made donations to the BC Liberals in past elections. Innergex has given a total of $3,950 since 2005, while Ledcor entities have given the Liberals $92,200 in the same time period. This December, however, Innergex donated $750 to the BC NDP.
Creek Power's project isn't the only run-of-river project opponents have to contend with. Pemberton's municipal council recently issued a Request for Expression of Interest for a river diversion project on the Pemberton Creek, which runs much closer to the town centre than the Upper Lillooet River. The proposals were presented to the public this Thursday, and have been met with as much resistance as Innergex's upcoming project.
Ludlam-Taylor says she has in mind to attempt to delay Innergex's project, but won't reveal any details for fear it might affect her plans.
Barlee's skeptical: "It's a tall order to stop the project at this time."
*The Green Party added Richard Warrington as its candidate in Vancouver-Sea to Sky around the time this story went to print.