by Ray Eagle
When the Peace River hydro-electric dam system was first conceptualized in the ‘60s, Site C was seen as just another river section that could provide additional power to augment the Bennett and Peace Canyon dams. There was no recognition of the attributes most now acknowledge: highly productive farmland, First Nations sacred sites, important animal habitat and a scenic rural landscape. There was only a determination by then premier W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit government to construct the dam; in 1971, BC Hydro began engineering studies.
Interestingly, energy Minister Bill Bennett made a recent admission, saying, “If I looked at it [the Peace] strictly as someone who loves the outdoors, it’s a beautiful place… But as somebody charged with the responsibility to help make sure we are meeting our future electricity needs, I also have to look at the valley as a very natural place for another dam.”
It was not until November 1983 that BC Hydro went before the British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC), then newly created by premier Bill Bennett (W.A.C.’s son). A 315-page summary, while denying the dam’s immediate need because of BC Hydro’s abysmal forecasting ability, clearly had no concerns about eventual inundation of the valley: “While the Commission recognizes that major impacts will result from Site C, it concludes that they are not so large as to make them unacceptable… the impacts can be successfully and acceptably managed.”
BC Hydro was determined not to give up and on September 18, 1989, the Vancouver Sun reported, “BC Hydro has stepped up plans to build Site C hydroelectric dam… quietly reviving the multi-billion-dollar project shelved by the Provincial cabinet in 1983… Hydro’s move has projected needs, which may or may not be realized.”
In fact, it was merely a ramping-up of a state of readiness for when the go-ahead came from the BCUC, but controversy continued to follow the dam. On May 10, 1990, the Vancouver Sun reported remarks made by then Energy Minister Jack Davis at an Electric Energy Forum: “Power projects initiated by BC Hydro will be increasingly guided by environmental concerns because of mounting public pressure. We have the scope to be different without building Site C.” However, during a 1991 Social Credit party leadership campaign, the winner, Rita Johnston, declared in her policy statement that she wanted to accelerate construction of the ‘$3 billion’ dam. Johnston’s leadership was brief because the Socreds were defeated in October of 1991.
Despite these twists and turns, BC Hydro persisted and in the 20 years from 1990 to 2010, its staff worked diligently to keep the dam alive, continuing with advanced engineering studies. Questionnaires were distributed to assess impacts to the socio-economic life of the affected communities, studies were updated on forestry, wildlife, archeological sites and a whole range of issues, especially First Nations’ concerns. Public meetings were held and newsletters distributed to inform the citizens of BC Hydro’s intentions, as well as to offer reassurances. It was even stated, “It must be recognized that public involvement requires the provision of information, however incomplete…”
From 1990 to 2010, the public was mostly unaware of BC Hydro’s determination as its staff worked diligently to keep the dam alive, including its Northern point-man David Conway.
Through 2007 to 2009, Conway held a series of ‘stakeholders’ meetings that, again, engaged local people. At an October 20, 2008 meeting he bold-facedly told the assembly, “. . . no decision has been made yet to build the Site C project. We are in a multi-stage approach, regarding Site C as a resource option and are focused on project definition, which includes geotechnical, socio-economic, wildlife, fish studies and consultation.”
One of the concerns expressed was shoreline erosion, which, ironically, has recently become a major issue. Also while emphasizing the growing need for power, alternatives were quoted such as Independent Power Producers (IPPs) and wind projects. Conway also mentioned upgrades to both the WAC Bennett and Peace Canyon dams. Surprisingly, he admitted a good potential for geothermal, a concept dismissed by Energy Minister Bennett.
Whether the purpose was to placate the participants or to hide Hydro’s intensions, it is obvious that, back in Vancouver, company management and Premier Campbell had a different schedule.
Fast forward to April 19, 2010, when Campbell made his announcement from the W.A.C. Bennett Dam that Site C was on again, now claimed as a ‘clean energy project’ and “an important part of BC’s economic and ecological future.” Campbell’s ecological reference ignored any mention of the factors that now form today’s growing opposition.
Campbell claimed the dam would power 460,000 new homes and repeated the mantra of an increasing power demand of 20 to 40% in the following 20 years.
In 2011, Campbell faced a revolt over the introduction of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). It was rescinded, but with a 9% approval rating, on March 19, 2011, he resigned. However, for the wily Campbell, a sinecure awaited from Stephen Harper: that of Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
When the ‘gung-ho happy face’ Christy Clark won the leadership in the May 2013 provincial election, she pushed LNG as the solution to BC’s economic woes and claimed Site C was now vital to power LNG plants, Campbell’s domestic needs forgotten. Were the voters influenced by the LNG bait? The forecast NDP win disappeared, though Clark lost West Point Grey to NDP’s David Eby and had to run in a West Kelowna by-election.
No LNG plants have emerged, though two are planned, perhaps: Prince Rupert’s Petronas and Woodfibre. In a recent desperate switch, Clark is now trying to sell Site C power to Alberta.
With her brash style, it is difficult to gauge Clark’s popularity, but she faces negative issues such as class-size, twice lost in the courts, the highest child poverty rates in Canada and the evidence of massive funding from the business sector, much of it out-of-province. And her approval of Kinder Morgan, aided by a company financial handout, will certainly raise questions.
With regards to Site C, Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjerg has written about politicians’ fascination with mega projects, describing the rapture they feel in building monuments: “Mega projects garner attention, which adds to the visibility they gain from them.”
This describes Christy Clark and her determination to build Site C while the call to stop it grows stronger, as proven by Peace farmer Ken Boon’s daily media bulletins. Approaching the May 9 election, opposition grows stronger (with the recent appearance of a very large white elephant!) in the determination to protect the many vital attributes along this historic river.
Ray Eagle first became aware of Site C in the mid ‘70s. He has helped fight it through the Wilderness Committee and many published letters in provincial papers. Wilderness Committee: wildernesscommittee.org, 604-683-8220. Contact Ray Eagle by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604-922-8507.