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Pitt River Victory

Will stopped power project start a citizens' revolt?

By Rafe Mair 31 Mar 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Read previous columns by Rafe Mair here.

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Penner and Campbell: Message received?

Just before I get to the meat of the matter, Agriculture Minister Pat Bell has put a moratorium on fish farm applications on the North coast. Welcome as that news is, Mr. Bell somehow doesn't see the logical dilemma of deciding that fish farms are bad for the north because of the impact of their sea lice on migrating smolts while leaving all the farms in place in the Broughton Archipelago where the sea lice situation is horrendous.

In the north, the wild salmon come first. In the south the fish farmers, who happen to make campaign donations to the BC Liberals, come first.

That and what follows are the reasons that the Campbell government has found itself in an environmental war like this province has never hitherto seen.

Pitt River power showdown

I went to the public meeting held in Pitt Meadows Senior Secondary last Tuesday night on the proposal to give a private company the right to divert waters of the Pitt and make electricity. Quite apart from the fact that the entire area has the worst road signage in Christendom -- or Islamdom for that matter -- I found the evening fascinating.

The Ministry of Environment took the most time explaining to 1200 unimpressed people how this power project was subject to the most rigorous environmental standards imaginable. It was incredible what this poor company had to go through before the minister (who, incidentally, wasn't in attendance) would get the report filed under the Environmental Assessment Act. It would, so it appeared, be far easier for that fabled camel to go through the eye of that needle than for this company to have a prayer of getting the imprimatur of this flinty-eyed, highly trained bunch of tough as nails protectors of the public weal. Not only that, why, we were solemnly assured that after the report was filed, well, it then had to pass cabinet! Then -- are you ready for this? -- it had to pass the legislature if it involved park lands!

Power point after power point told us of the plight these public-spirited entrepreneurs had to go through before they could save the province by bringing us badly needed power. It would have been funny had not the stakes been so critical. We who listened could be forgiven for suspecting that the environmental exertions indicated were mere exercises in "making it look good" so that the Campbell government could claim it had done it's environmental duty and had consulted the people before certifying what had for a long time been a done deal.

An official presented the Ministry of Environment's solemn duty and told of all the roadblocks they placed in the path of the company that would change the Pitt River from a haven for Pacific salmon and char to a source of hugely profitable electricity. The official reminded us that even after they had completed their rigorous examination, more rigor was involved -- by God, somehow the company would have to convince Premier Campbell and his hard as nails cabinet that it should be permitted to bring the province the benefits of private power over public fish.

Missing info

What the official overlooked mentioning was that his boss, the Director of the Environmental Assessment process, is not a member of the public service but is appointed by Premier Campbell himself. Nor could he say that Premier Campbell and his cabinet (for that, read "the premier") were the ones who committed turning over 500-700 rivers and streams over to the tender mercies of private power interests in the first place.

Nor did anyone from the government or the company make the critical observation that huge profits would accompany private electricity development, that British Columbia citizens and corporations would pay dramatically increased rates for electricity and that the profits, instead of going back into the hands of the province through BC Hydro, would now go into the pockets of, mostly, foreign shareholders.

No longer would BC Hydro profits go back into the public purse to pay for hospitals, schools and the like.

And, oddly enough, none of the government or industry spokespeople mentioned that the Pitt project and every other one like it would require a dam or tunnel to control the flows of the water -- that's where the fish live -- plus a dirt road in and transmission lines out. Every one!

Conceivably, every useable river and stream in the province would have its flow controlled and its own dirt road and transmission lines. So much for Super Natural British Columbia and its world renowned and envied wilderness!

My opinion is that the environmental assessment process is window dressing -- a mating dance conducted just before and as a condition precedent to the public getting screwed.

A rallying point?

So there we were, last Tuesday, 1200 people sitting in stony silence as we were told how seriously government and industry wanted public feedback. Well, they sure as hell got it!

And we now know that Barry Penner, Gordon Campbell's environment minister, announced the following morning that the Pitt project would not get authority to go through a provincial park thus would not go ahead.

Anyone who thinks that Penner made that decision will no doubt be interested in a bridge I have for sale. Gordon Campbell cancelled the project and the cancellation had dick-all to do with parks or the environment. The premier can see that he's going to be in trouble all over the province on this issue. The advice given at the meeting -- and roundly applauded -- was that everyone ought to set aside party politics in the next election and, instead, only support candidates who oppose the Run of Rivers Projects and unequivocally support public power.

Premier Campbell wanted to avoid having the Pitt used as a rallying cry in the election in May '09.

I have news for Mr. Campbell. This fight will be taken right around the province and the Pitt will be a rallying cry -- a symbol of what an aroused public can do.

The Campbell government has three options. It can tube the entire exercise (it won't). It can try to bulldoze its way through (a very dangerous tactic). Or more likely, it can suspend the program until the next election has passed.

Gordon Campbell would do well to remember that once you elect to ride on a tiger, it's very difficult to dismount.

One more thing

In my capacity as advisor to the B.C. Chiropractors may I refer you to this blog, which will show you why we are squandering billions on healthcare and give you a chance to say your piece.

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