Site C hearings: Tears and fears

There were tears of protest and pleas for power at December 12th’s Site C hearings in Fort St. John.

Steve Thorlakson, a former Fort St. John mayor

There were tears of protest and pleas for power at December 12th’s Site C hearings in Fort St. John.

The three-member joint review panel listened on as about a dozen people aired concerns or expressed support for the multibillion-dollar hydroelectric project on the fourth day of public environmental hearings.

Presenters raised a swath of concerns in the nearly 10-hour session, ranging from a loss of valuable farmland, irregular water levels, shoreline erosion, seismic activity, doubts on the dam’s estimated lifetime and cost overruns to more pupils in the school system and climatic considerations.

Early in the morning, Jon Garson from the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce soberly laid out why his association thinks the province’s businesses would benefit from another dam on the Peace River.

“We support the development of Site C,” he said. “As important as demand-side management is in meeting our energy needs, the need for supply-side addition is irrefutable.”

The chamber advocates for 125 local chambers of commerce and boards of trade, representing more than 36,000 businesses in every region of the province.

The province’s energy needs are forecast to rise 40% over the next 20 years, and “this increase in demand will continue to grow even when you take into account savings from conservation and efficiency measures,” Garson added.

Garson said the chamber recognized the concerns over the project, and asked that BC Hydro address First Nations’ concerns, the impact on the community and region, as well as ensuring that cost measures be managed to protect taxpayers.

“These are legitimate concerns, but it is the chamber’s view that these are not reasons to reject the project,” added Garson. “Solutions can be found and concerns can be addressed.

“Energy, frankly, is the lifeblood of our economic prosperity,” he concluded.

Ruth Ann Darnall spoke next on behalf of the Peace Valley Environment Association, which was quite decidedly opposed to Site C.

“We cannot lie down and let this dam be built without putting our best efforts forward,” she said. “We cannot stop speaking for this valley. We are speaking so it can be here for generations to come. I know in my heart that this valley must be preserved.”

Darnall raised a number of concerns about the review process, the timing and its location. The consultations, she said, lacked a clear purpose for conducting public participation in the Environmental Assessment process.

“There was no clear understanding to the public of why their input was being sought or how it was going to be used in the decision making,” she told the three panel members.

However, the real question that needed to be answered, Darnall said, was whether or not the project was actually needed, and if it was even the best available option. She lamented the fact that hearings would not be taking place throughout the province.

“All British Columbians should have had an opportunity to speak,” she said.  

Turning to speak directly to the panel, she said: “We can’t eat energy ... the Peace Valley needs to be preserved, as it will be needed in the future for food sustainability in the North, as climate change puts on pressure to feed ourselves.

“I, on behalf of British Columbians and citizens of Canada, ask that you do your part in keeping the Peace River Valley from destruction,” she said. “We ask that you do not rubber stamp the application and make it a done deal. Keep the Peace.”

Most of the morning speakers, like Darnall, were against the project.

Dr. Sandra Hoffmann raised concerns about the estimated lifespan of earth-filled dams, claimed BC Hydro’s electricity demand growth estimates were exaggerated, and questioned the structural soundness of the slopes, among other topics.

“Building dams in regions with such a high degree of instability is asking for trouble, especially financial trouble, and that becomes the burden of the ratepayers,” she said.

Hoffmann said she wants the panel to take into consideration that Site C is wholly reliant on the integrity of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, and that the former may not be economically viable for its entire projected 100-year lifespan, due to rising maintenance costs.  

“There is far too much uncertainty to proceed,” Hoffmann said. “The full impact of instability has not been adequately addressed.”

On exaggerated demand, she noted BC Hydro’s “well documented history of exaggerating demand to serve corporate interests, and that pattern is repeating. Predictions of future demand are not justified.”

Hoffmann also asked the panel to consider the geological characteristics of the Peace River Valley when it makes its decision.

“Landslides have played a significant role in the Peace River Valley. Some of the valley slopes are marginally stable, and there many historic and currently active landslides. Slope and stability is a significant issue for the construction of the dam,” she said.  

After the marathon morning session, the tenor of the afternoon speakers grew more positive towards the project. Steve Thorlakson, former Fort St. John mayor and president of Thorlakson Management, and the region’s Senator Richard Neufeld addressed the panel later in the day.

Thorlakson’s argument was simple: the Peace River already has two dams, “so a third just makes sense.”

Addressing the contentious issue of farmland loss, he said that the emotional argument did not hold water, since only small-scale farming has existed for the past five decades, and infrastructure and labour constraints will prevent that sector from expansion in the future.

Neufeld, also a resident of Fort St. John, said the project is vital to the province’s continued economic growth. He warned that the forecasted 40% energy demand was actually on the low side because it does not include significant proposed LNG development, which could tack on another 10% or more.

“For British Columbia, Site C represents cost-effective renewable energy that would provide long-term, stable and clean energy for generations to come,” said Neufeld. “It would also help the province achieve self-sufficiency and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. While the environmental arguments in support of this project are strong, the economic reasons are just as compelling.”

However, his support of the project was not unconditional. The senator requested that the panel take into consideration long-term demands of the province and worker housing issues that would inevitably arise during construction.

Specifically, he argued for permanent housing to be built in Fort St. John for workers and their families, which he says would provide stability and promote social interaction and strong communities. After the dam’s construction, the homes could be converted into low-cost housing for seniors, he proposed.

Neufeld also expressed concern about BC Hydro’s inconsistent reporting on the allowable fluctuation of the water level of the Peace River as a result of the project

“I urge you again to apply explicit direction to BC Hydro to set the absolute water fluctuation rate,” he said.

Education was another area of concern, as School District 60 representatives outlined as they took the microphone to address the panel.

The Peace River North school board remains neutral on the dam’s construction, but four officials identified issues that need to be addressed to protect the educational integrity and safety for students in the community.

“It is our view that the report has only examined education in a very superficial manner,” one member said. “The limited contact we’ve had to date was initiated by the district to determine what planning we need to do.”

The effect of the growth of the student population in SD60 appears to have been downplayed by BC Hydro, according to the board representative, since growth is assumed to take place across multiple schools.  

“What that fails to recognise is that for the most part, our in-town schools are already at capacity,” they added. The reality of potentially spreading this growth across a number of schools compounds our problem by requiring new space at every one of these schools. We have class-size issues across the community.”

The members also expressed concern about securing funding for the expected increase in the number of students due to the influx of workers and their families, as well as a possible spike in the dropout rate from high school students being lured to high-paying – but ultimately temporary – jobs.

The school board asked the panel to be included in the discourse surrounding the dam’s construction.

The City of Fort St. John had the last word among the presenters. Brian Hobbs, a city planning consultant, represented the City, and primarily expressed concern over possible health impacts arising from dust and particulate matter, as well as smoke from burning timber that can’t be milled, and fog at the city’s airport and the Taylor Bridge.

“I understand that modeling burning is challenging, but given the proximity to the city, we believe it is a very important issue,” he said. “It does raise a couple of questions: Will burning in the fall and the winter result in health or other effects, and will burning a likely smaller amount in the summer, in combination with all the other dust, result in health or other effects?

“The City of Fort St. John believes that in order to determine the possible impacts and required mitigation of smoke on the community, it is essential to have a plan which lays out in detail how non-merchantable timber will be disposed of.”

The City requested that the panel demand further information from BC Hydro on how exactly it plans to dispose of this timber, and present alternatives to burning.

The next area of concern was the potential impact of dust, particularly from the 85th Avenue lands adjacent to Fort St. John. BC Hydro plans to carve out a massive chunk of earth and transport it via conveyor and truck to fill the dam. The concern here is that the massive six-day-a-week, 12-hour-a-day operation could be a dangerous source of dust.

The City believes that “in order to adequately determine possible health effects and required medication for smoke and dust for the community, first it is essential to have scientifically supportive interpretation of accurate information on likely levels of exposure,” said Hobbs.

“Second, the management plan should be assessed for adequacy for any determination” of significant impacts.

The city requested that BC Hydro provide further studies, modelling, analyses and “scientifically supportive interpretation with respect to particulate matter” to determine the health impacts of what could occur during the construction and operation of the dam.

The dam’s impact on precipitation, especially snow and fog, was the final area addressed by Hobbs, who also expressed worry about cumulative effects of potentially having three dams in relatively close proximity.

“The effects of fog on both the airport and the Taylor Bridge are significant concerns to the city, to the potential safety and economic consequences,” he said.