Photo Essay

The Angriest Riding in BC

In Tsawwassen, massive power lines have sparked voter rage.

By Geoff Dembicki 7 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee.

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Cecil Dunn and the house he felt forced to abandon.

Cecil Dunn fought the provincial government and lost. For four years, he battled a proposal to build steel power poles in the backyards of Tsawwassen homes. The struggle wasn't just about sparing residents the anxiety of ever-present radiation or saving its tree-lined skyline from 30-metre eyesores. Dunn's own house of 26 years lay on the proposed route. The fight was personal.

The retired Telus executive describes the last four years like a rollercoaster ride, full of euphoric highs and cynical lows. But the defeats built up one by one. The opposition he spearheaded lost in B.C.'s highest court. The power poles went up last summer. And this year, faced with a tough choice between life under the lines or a government buyout, he opted to sell the home he'd planned to grow old in.

Dunn feels betrayed by the political system, but not enough to abstain from the May 12 vote. He's throwing his support behind heavyweight independent Vicki Huntington, a five-term local councillor who's promised to defend Delta South against the whims of big government. Her main challenger, BC Liberal Wally Oppal, is drawing from the same sense of helplessness, albeit with a twist. As attorney-general, he's promised voters the ear of the premier and a key voice in cabinet.

Whether voters reject the current government or bid for a stronger place inside it is anyone's guess. But perhaps nowhere else in the province is the choice so visceral.

From a 'back lane to a superhighway'

I meet Dunn in a Tim Horton's on Tsawwassen's main strip. He buys me a coffee and we stake out a table near the back, away from the crowds of seniors gathered for their morning social. I tell him this is my first time in town. Normally I'm just passing to the nearby ferry terminal. He nods his head in assent. "Just like most people," he says.

Dunn begins our talk with a crash course in local power line history. In the mid 1950s, the British Columbia Electric Company bought land rights for a transmission corridor through "a couple of potato farms and forest." Tsawwassen grew into a thriving coastal community over the coming decades, cut in half by 17-metre wood power poles on a 3.7 kilometre right of way. Many homeowners assumed the lines would be dismantled once their life cycle came to end.

In late 2004, they were shocked by the province's proposal. The old lines were coming down. And in their place, 20 steel poles the size of a high-rise, capable of transmitting 60 per cent more power and connected to a 23.5 km submarine cable under the Strait of Georgia. Residents were told the project was essential to meet Vancouver Island's growing energy needs.

"The analogy I like to use is they wanted to turn a back lane into a superhighway," Dunn says.

Retracted promises

The Tsawwassen Residents Against Higher Voltage Overhead Lines (TRAHVOL) sprung up to fight the proposal. Dunn spent hours researching the link between electro-magnetic fields (EMF) and cancer rates. He shook hands with senior government executives, urging them to reconsider. TRAHVOL's efforts soon paid off -- or so residents thought.

Just weeks before the 2005 provincial election, Dunn received a letter from Energy Minister Richard Neufeld. The B.C. Transmission Corporation (BCTC) had abandoned plans to build overhead lines in favour of yet-to-be-determined alternatives, it read.

"People were excited," Dunn says between sips of coffee. "They thought, 'Hey, these guys are actually listening to us.'" When election day came, BC Liberal Val Roddick defeated the independent Huntington by 1,100 ballots. Dunn's vote helped her win.

"We were all a bit politically naïve," he admits. "I have quite a different view of politics than I did then."

After the election, BCTC announced plans to bury high voltage lines in a shallow trench along the Tsawwassen right of way. Residents weren't impressed. They argued the plan would tear up backyards and emit even more radiation than the steel pole system. Even worse was a carefully worded July letter from Neufeld that appeared to play down the province's commitment to oppose overhead lines.

TRAHVOL proposed alternate routes, organized rallies and pleaded with government officials, to no avail. In the absence of broad public support, the province's utilities commission disregarded the trench alternative and forged ahead with the original proposal. A legal battle followed, but B.C.'s court of appeal refused to reverse the decision. Construction on the towers wrapped up last summer and BC Hydro energized the lines in December.

'They look disgusting'

South Delta Secondary School sits in the middle of Tsawwassen, a low building fringed by open sports fields and leafy residential streets. When I visit, wind tousles the hair of teenagers enjoying their spares in the sun. The setting would be unexceptional, were it not for the gigantic steel towers cascading down a nearby hill -- or the 30-metre power pole that juts out from the parking lot, towering over surrounding cars. During the fight to reroute the overhead lines, Delta Secondary became a key battleground. The Mothers Against Power Poles formed out of fears the school's 1300 students would be made test subjects for prolonged EMF exposure. After the lines went in, some parents withdrew their children, and local anger hasn't subsided.

The BCTC maintains exposure levels are well within the World Health Organization's guidelines. It notes 30 years of scientific studies haven't revealed any definite link between EMF and cancer. Still, as the Canadian Cancer Society points out, incidents of childhood leukemia appear to be greater when radiation levels are high.

Crossing the school's soccer field, I approach a group of Grade 12 girls reclined on a blanket. The appropriately named Natalie Watts seems a bit aloof as I motion towards one of poles. With graduation so near, she's not too concerned about radiation. But aesthetics are a different story. "I hate them. They look disgusting," Watts says. "It's our small town and there's these huge urban power lines going through."

'People here are exhausted'

When I enter Ladner's ABC Restaurant later that day, Vicki Huntington appears tired. We take a booth near the back and I glance at the flower paintings on the walls. "It's so loud here," she remarks, cringing at the background muzak.

Huntington tells me she was courted by Gordon Campbell and Carole James before her campaign began. Both knew her local popularity and five terms in civic politics make her a potent candidate, she says. But neither offer was enough to sway her.

"I'm firmly of the opinion that MLAs in British Columbia represent parties, not the people," she says.

That's been a frequent theme in Huntington's campaign as she tries to position herself as a staunch defender of local interests, unbeholden to a government that treats Delta South like its personal "doormat."

When she lists off local grievances, they sound like personal affronts. The healthcare cuts that gutted Delta hospital. The proposed Deltaport container expansion and $1 billion South Fraser Perimeter Road -- both poised to destroy critical wildlife habitats, she claims.

And of course, the Tsawwassen power lines. I ask her whether an independent MLA could have made any difference in an entrenched party system. She brings up the late Chuck Cadman in response -- everyone knows if single voices can't make a difference, democracy has failed, she says.

"People here are exhausted. They've been fighting their own government for almost eight years."

(Delta South isn't the only area to rally against outside encroachment. See sidebar for examples across the province.)

Oppal's strategy

After meeting with Huntington, I contact Oppal's headquarters. I was supposed to sit down with the attorney-general at noon, but his campaign manager called in the morning to cancel. I'd visited his Tsawwassen office twice today but was told both times he was too busy to talk. Phone in hand, I try my luck again.

Election staffer Matthew Naylor tells me Oppal definitely can't meet today. "Would he be able to phone sometime this week?" I ask. "I wouldn't be too optimistic," Naylor replies.

This is Oppal's first run for Delta South, though he's called Tsawwassen home for 10 years. If 2005 results are any indication, the vote here could be tight. Most analysts predict a dead heat between the well known attorney-general and the former councillor, with the New Democratic Party's Dileep Athaide trailing in third.

Though Huntington draws on popular anger to buoy her candidacy, Oppal's personal charm and claim to be a powerful voice in government could carry him to victory. "The premier listens to me. Other members of my cabinet listen to me," he told a packed room of Huntington supporters at an April 16 debate.

His challenger likes to point to Oppal's record of silence on critical Delta South issues, including his intervention against TRAHVOL's power line challenge in the court of appeal. But the attorney-general can hit hard too. The governing party makes the rules, he argued at the debate earlier this month. "There's no possible way that any independent could have any influence on that."

Strange homecoming

Back in Tsawwassen and fresh off our Tim Horton's chat, Dunn takes me for drive in his green pick-up. We follow the steel poles -- from the hulking power station near Fred Gingell park to the tree-lined street he used to live on. After electricity started flowing, the provincial government made tempting offers on 119 homes. Only 15 households could resist. Dunn moved to Ladner on April 1, and as we stand in front of his old house, he tells me government workers just came by to change the locks. For the time being, it sits empty.

We're soon being greeted enthusiastically by Dunn's old neighbour, Rick Grant. He took the government buyout too, but won't be leaving until the end of summer. The former neighbours chat like old friends. "You know, there were some people by last week to cut your lawn," Grant says. He leads us to a compact backyard, bursting with spring colours. Overhead, power lines grid the sky. The poles are impossible to miss.

"Your tulip tree looks great," Dunn says, pointing to the white petals littering the grass.

"It's the energy from the lines," Grant jokes.

When Dunn and I get back into the car, I notice a Huntington sign on his old front lawn. He says Grant put it there. We start to drive and he tells me the decision to leave Tsawwassen was one of the hardest he's ever made.

"You've always got that apprehension in the back of your mind -- do you live with these lines forever or start a new life?" He takes a right turn down a quiet street. "What we chose is not what we wanted to choose."

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