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Site C Review Process Lacked Independence, Says Northern Mayor

Plans to submerge 10,000 hectares of fertile Peace River land continue to spark outrage.

By David P. Ball 10 Sep 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

With files from Legislative Bureau Chief Andrew MacLeod.

Local municipal and First Nations officials from northeastern B.C.'s Peace River area renewed their opposition to the proposed 1,100-megawatt Site C hydroelectric dam at a press briefing Tuesday.

In front of them on a long table, laid out like Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper, were succulent cantaloupes and pots of honey produced in their fertile agricultural region, which could see an 83-kilometre stretch of riverside land submerged if Site C gets the green light.

"The alluvial flats, which is where these products were grown, would be lost if that dam were built," said Gwen Johansson, mayor of the District of Hudson's Hope.

"We could probably feed a million people if that valley was used for the intensive agriculture that it's capable of, because of those alluvial flats."

Plans to submerge nearly 10,000 hectares of the lush region -- more than 40 per cent of it classified as farmland -- have outraged local politicians, farmers and indigenous communities, and critics have questioned whether the nearly $8-billion price tag for the dam makes economic sense for taxpayers.*

Several speakers at yesterday's meeting also raised the spectre of last month's Mount Polley mine tailings dam collapse as an area of concern. Site C will also be an earthen dam.

A federal-provincial Joint Review Panel approved the project in May, provided proponent BC Hydro can meet its 50 conditions. The province has until Oct. 22 to decide the future of Site C by issuing an environmental assessment certificate.

Review 'very flawed': mayor

In an interview, Johansson argued the review process has been "very flawed" because a provincial Crown corporation is the proponent while the provincial government is the decision-maker.

BC Hydro commissioned its own environmental impact statement that it submitted as part of the Joint Review Panel process.

Although Johansson doesn't question the independence of that panel, she said the process of limiting its terms of reference was too cozy between BC Hydro and the provincial government, particularly since clean energy legislation essentially pressures BC Hydro into building a large hydroelectric facility over other power sources.

"You had one proponent, BC Hydro, going to the other proponent, the province -- and BC Hydro wrote the environmental impact statement and took it to government for approval. So of course it was approved." she said. "You need to have some scrutiny from outside."

Johansson demanded that the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) take on its own assessment of the dam and look at whether the project makes financial sense. BCUC initially rejected the Site C proposal back in the 1980s. But the province has already ruled out sending the proposal back to the commission.

The Hudson's Hope mayor admitted the provincial BCUC is still part of the B.C. government, and that it would need some retooling.

"We need to send it up to a BCUC that's constituted to be completely independent, completely arms-length and completely transparent, with the capacity to review it properly," she said.

Courts an option: chief

Others at the briefing, however, rejected the idea of pressuring the BCUC to review the project again.

For Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nation, the biggest takeaway from the Joint Review Panel report was not its assessment that the project made economic sense, but rather its implication that local indigenous concerns could not be adequately mitigated by BC Hydro.

He said that plentiful geothermal activity in the region should be explored and harnessed before resorting to mass flooding from hydroelectric power, particularly since the province will primarily use power from Site C to fuel natural gas production.

"From the First Nations point of view, Site C is not an option at all," he said. In the event of Site C being granted its environmental assessment certification, he said the band "will file for a judicial review on it immediately."

Dam safety on the mind

One elected official said he was concerned about the safety of the proposed dam design itself.

In August, The Tyee reported on an internal 2010 memo from a senior environment ministry engineer which warned that reductions in provincial dam inspectors, replaced by operators who self-regulate, would inevitably lead to "negative results, which in the field of dam safety are represented by dam failures or incidents."

"On average we have been experiencing several incidents and at least one dam failure in British Columbia annually," the memo continues.

Asked about that document and dam safety, Arthur Hadland, an electoral area director for the Peace River Regional District replied, "I don't think the engineers entirely adequately addressed the issue of dam safety."

Unlike other dams in the area, such as the W.A.C. Bennett dam (the largest in the province), Site C is not designed on top of bedrock but rather shale rock, Hadland said. That raises the risk of another collapse as happened when the shale-mounted Peace River Bridge collapsed in 1957, he said.

Loss of a 'highly valued place'

The Joint Review Panel report recommended the project despite flagging issues around indigenous rights, concluding that Site C "would likely cause significant adverse cumulative effects on current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes."

It had even stronger language when it came to farmland that would be destroyed, ruling that the flooding would be "highly significant to the farmers who would bear the loss, and that financial compensation would not make up for the loss of a highly valued place and way of life."

As reported in The Tyee in May, Minister for Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said Site C dam was nonetheless needed for the greater good.

"I'm sure if I was in their shoes, I wouldn't feel that good about it either," he said of farmers whose land would be flooded by Site C. He added that he hoped "to work with families and avoid expropriation, but I'm not sure we can do that."

*Story corrected Sept. 10 at 6:15 p.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, BC Politics

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