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What's Wrong With Site C? Sarah Cox Has a List

'Breaching the Peace' argues dam is destructive, costly and not needed.

Andrew MacLeod 3 May

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Journalist and author Sarah Cox says she made the decision to write Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley's Stand against Big Hydro after only a handful of visits to the area over the past two-and-a-half years.

"I just couldn't shake the place from my mind," she said in a phone interview. "It's largely out of sight and out of mind for British Columbians because it's so far away from where most of us live, but once I spent time there and I saw what was at stake with the Site C dam and I met people who would lose their homes, their farms, their food source, their history, their ancestors' graves and their community to the dam, I felt very compelled to write the book."

One of three books now available on the controversial dam, Breaching the Peace offers a detailed and engaging narrative about the impact that decisions made in Vancouver and Victoria are having on the region, which Cox says is often an afterthought for people living in the south.

The province's northeast "appears to have been unofficially designated an industrial sacrifice zone," she said, with repercussions for First Nations, farmers, biodiversity and species at risk.

"People who live in the valley and the First Nations who have called that valley home for millennia have a story to tell," Cox said. "I don't believe that most British Columbians have heard that story and the book is an attempt to help bridge the gap between north and south in our province and give voice to some important stories that need to be told and inspire some important discussions that need to be had."

In an interview with The Tyee, Cox talked about why the Site C dam never should have been approved, the NDP's decision to continue with the project, and how it may yet be stopped. Following is an edited version:

The Tyee: What's wrong with Site C?

Sarah Cox: We don't need the energy from Site C. The joint review panel that examined Site C for the federal and provincial governments said we did not need Site C's energy in the time frame presented. We have so much energy in B.C. right now that we are paying independent power producers millions of dollars a year not to produce energy. BC Hydro is now proposing as of the last few weeks to change the rules for people who install solar on their roof tops so they would no longer buy excess solar power that homeowners are now allowed to sell to the grid, and that power costs a lot less than Site C.

Alberta just bought new wind power for $37 per megawatt hour. Site C, at it's current price tag, is going to cost $120 per megawatt hour. Even if we needed the energy, it's not the cheapest way to get it. We do not need this dam. It was put forward as a political project.

Is there anything you'd point to as in the dam's favour?

I spent a lot of time looking at all the evidence. The only thing that I can see that is good, and I'll put this in a context in a second, is that it creates jobs. But we have to ask is it an energy project, or is its main purpose to create jobs? If we are going to spend almost $11 billion from the public purse to create jobs, shouldn't we be creating more jobs than the 25 permanent jobs that Site C would deliver upon completion, 160 jobs if you include contract jobs? Wouldn't we want to be creating more jobs than that?

You dedicated the book to Arlene and Ken Boon, who will lose their farm and home if the valley is flooded. Why did you decide to do that?

I dedicated the book to the Boons as a small gesture to honour their story. In the time that I spent up in the Peace and the time that I spent with them, I was very moved by this family who were in the firing line for Site C, who live on land that has been in their family since the 1940s, now five generations of Arlene's family have lived there, and these are just ordinary British Columbians who have stood up to try to protect their home, their farm, their community, the valley and the land all around them of very special cultural significance to First Nations who continue to gather there. So I dedicated the book to them as a way of honouring their story. They are ordinary British Columbians who became accidental activists because of this project and I think it behooves all of us to listen to their story.

You describe the civil legal action that BC Hydro has taken against Site C protesters as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP suit. Why?

I myself didn't call it a SLAPP suit. I quoted one lawyer who described it as a SLAPP suit and I quoted another lawyer, a leading expert on SLAPP suits, saying it has some of the hallmarks of a SLAPP suit, and the rest I leave to readers to draw their own conclusion. Basically it was a 13-page lawsuit against Ken and Arlene Boon, First Nations members and a few other Peace residents. It accused them of intimidation, conspiracy, trespass, creating a public and private nuisance and intentionally interfering with economic relations by unlawful means. It also sued them for damages. A bill their lawyer suggested could total as much as $420 million. This was after a very peaceful winter camp was set up for two months by some of the people named in the lawsuit. There were many others who were involved in the camp and people who went to the camp, including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and other chiefs who were curiously not named in the suit. Even though once the court did rule this two-month winter camp needed to be taken down, even though it was taken down immediately and peacefully, the lawsuit still stands almost a year and a half later.

You note in the book that David Suzuki was left out as well. Why do you think they left Phillip and him out?

I can only guess at that. You could look at that and say the high profile people were not named. The former chiefs of various Treaty 8 First Nations who went to the camp were not named. David Suzuki was not named. The Grand Chief was not named. It seemed very much that it targeted just ordinary people whose names would not draw headlines. That's my observation.

The government has changed but the suit is continuing. What do you make of that?

I'm not sure what to make of that. When the NDP were last in power, they did pass legislation which would have meant this type of suit likely would not have gone forward. I have not heard whether they are considering dropping this particular suit. It would be up to that government to decide that. They have said they will be taking a look at anti-SLAPP suit legislation in general but we haven't really heard any more than that. I'm not sure why it hasn't been dropped. In fact the expert in this type of suit that I spoke with, a lawyer, said he has never heard anywhere in any country of a government launching a civil suit against its own citizens.

How large do you believe the union movement's influence was in the NDP's decision to keep building the dam?

Certainly it looks like that was a factor. We saw the construction trade unions who've donated generously to the NDP lobbying strongly for continuation of the project. The NDP also campaigned on an affordability agenda and certainly cancelling the project in the fall would have meant some measure of Site C's sunk costs would have had to be incurred by BC Hydro customers. I talked to four project financing experts though and they said the standard practice for North American utilities would have been to write those sunk costs off over many years. The way it was presented to us by the NDP was the cost would have to come onto hydro bills right away. We haven't seen the evidence behind that.

How reliable is the $10.7 billion price tag?

We don't actually know. The BCUC review showed the final price tag could exceed $12.5 billion. Former Premier Mike Harcourt is estimating $12 to $15 billion. The public are no longer privy to details about geotechnical problems or potential cost overruns, so we don't actually know that. What we do know is the second largest civil works contract for Site C was awarded this year, and when you compare that to a figure that was accidentally released during the BCUC process, that contract came in at about $350 million more than was budgeted. There's also the question of transmission line costs that may or may not have been in the budget. So we really don't know at this point in time. There's no independent scrutiny of the project right now. The NDP government has chosen not to reinstate the role of the BCUC in terms of Site C. Normally the BCUC would be scrutinizing ongoing capital expenditures for a project like Site C. They're not.

At your launch in Victoria, former Saulteau Chief Art Napoleon said he believes there's still time to stop construction of the dam. What are your thoughts?

I think there are a number of things that could stop it. I think there was a recent media report saying it was 25 per cent completed. They might have spent 25 per cent of the budget, but it's certainly not 25 per cent completed. They haven't started building the dam structure because they've been unable to find bedrock. You can't build a dam structure unless you can anchor it on bedrock. To put that in perspective, in the fall almost 90 per cent of the valley was still intact. I imagine it's a little less right now, but I'm guessing more than 80 per cent of the valley is still intact.

What could stop it?

Three Treaty 8 First Nations are in court in two different constitutional challenges, one of them saying Site C and the cumulative impacts of other industrial development in the Peace has prevented the Blueberry River First Nation from engaging in traditional practices guaranteed to them in the treaty.

The second launched by West Moberly First Nations and Prophet River First Nation claims that Site C and the other two dams on the Peace River infringe on what they were guaranteed in Treaty 8 as well. Both of those cases are going to be heard in July and both of them have the ability to stop the project.

The other thing that could possibly stop it is the cost. At a certain point in time if the cost continues to go up it will become far cheaper to cancel it than continue it. The other factor that could stop it is continuing geotechnical issues which has been a huge problem all along and major contributing factor to the $2 billion cost overrun that happened just last fall.

The Vancouver launch for Breaching the Peace is at 7 p.m. tonight, Thursday, May 3, at the Anza Club at 3 West Eighth Ave.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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