Peace Region residents say they want decisions, closure on Site C

Workers, landowners, mayors, chiefs, school teachers, farmers stood to speak before the commission in what may very well be the last public meeting in town on the dam since a flood reserve was in place on the Peace River in 1957 | Photo: Matt Preprost

North Peace residents told the provincial utilities commission this week they want two simple things from its inquiry on Site C: a well-made decision and closure.

Workers, landowners, mayors, chiefs, school teachers and farmers - 21 speakers - stood to speak before the commission in what may very well be the last public meeting in town on the dam since a flood reserve was placed on the Peace River in 1957.

But the commission is undertaking an accelerated, six-week economic study of the Site C at the behest of B.C.'s new NDP government—which will decide later this year whether to continue or cancel the project, now two years into construction.

For engineer Shawn Behnam, who moved to Canada to work on the dam, that's not enough time. Such work needs at least a year, he told the commission, but if a final report is to be filed within the next month, Behnam and others urged them to be cautious in their deliberations and with the numbers and submissions before them.

"We cannot satisfy everyone. It's impossible, but we have to make the best decision," Behnam said, noting other sources of energy, be it wind or geothermal, come with environmental costs just like hydroelectric development. 

"We have to be reasonable, we have to consider all aspects. Even if I'm going to lose my job, I prefer to see a realistic report that considers all aspects. And then, I can say, 'OK, the people who made that decision, they really did their best.' It doesn't matter if I lose my job or not."

In his 12 years in the mining and engineering field, no project has ever come on budget or schedule, Behnam said.

"It's about prediction, but you can't predict 100 per cent of everything," he said. 

For others, like landowner Clara London, an end to the Site C debate will mean a chance to return to normalcy for her and her family after decades of fighting the project. 

"I am a landowner, I love the land, and I want my land back. My family has been destroyed because of this project," London said, fighting back tears.

"We deserve what is right and that's what we've always stood for. We are right, and the landowners are right. We know the land, we love the land, we protect the land, and we want it back and we want to do agriculture."

Construction on the dam began in summer 2015, with an estimated $2.1 billion expected to be spent by the end of 2017. A cancellation or suspension would likely prompt a complicated path ahead—BC Hydro has roughly $4 billion in contracts committed for the project, and has singed multi-million dollar agreements with local governments in the Peace Region for construction impacts.

For Fort St. John, in particular, it amounts to $1 million a year during construction, adjusted to inflation, while the regional district is to receive $2.4 million for 70 years when the dam becomes operational. That's on top of millions more committed and already spent on area non-profits, recreation development, and the construction of a new 40-unit affordable housing block, among a range of other measures. 

Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman said the dam has dominated council's agenda for several years, though it knew the issue was outside its jurisdiction and decision-making authority. Two years of community consultations shaped both the city's approach to the project, which was neither in support or opposition, and its approach to negotiations with BC Hydro, she said. 

"We were emphatic that empowering the province should not disempower Fort St. John," said Ackerman, who appeared at the meeting with Couns. Trevor Bolin, Bruce Christensen, Byron Stewart, Lilia Hansen, and Gord Klassen. "We chose to be pragmatic and proactive to protect and promote the community."

The city has done much to work with the resource industry to build a city that offers a good quality of life and work prospects, she said.

Still, the biggest concern facing residents today remains economic uncertainty. And while the commission's preliminary report on the state of the dam is comprehensive and raises many questions, Fort St. John will continue to exist, she said, dam or no dam.

"It's the reason we took the position that we should be left better off, not a community that has had a price to pay with a megaproject built on its doorstep," Ackerman said.

"Whatever your decision is, uncertainty is not healthy. People, businesses, and the community can't make plans around uncertainty, so, we look forward to its end."

Workers' choices 'made in good faith'

Monday's meeting featured a more balanced cross-section in the community in support or opposition to the dam. Of the roughly 100 attendees, just 21 spoke directly to the commissioners—seven signalling their support, 12 voicing their opposition, and two remaining neutral in their submissions.

The BC Liberals, which approved the project in 2014, and other supporters say 2,500 jobs depend on the project and that it will help Canada meet its international climate change commitments. The NDP and Green Party have said it’s too expensive and not needed to meet the utility's demand.

Josh Pastoor, regional director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, said his union currently represents 750 workers on the project. 

While his union takes no position on the commission's review, Pastoor said Site C is needed to keep pace with the province's economic growth, and for several liquefied natural gas customers relying on its electricity for their operations.

"The project will take many more years to build and this time can be spent in securing utilization of Site C's clean energy generating capacity to the fullest," Pastoor said.

Dan Houghton, a construction officer on the project, told commissioners that many workers uprooted their lives and families to move to Fort St. John. 

"Every worker there has made a choice, that choice was made in good faith," Houghton said.

"And that is to integrate ourselves within this community and have a small part providing power for all of British Columbia."

Still, many believe that power can be provided in other ways—natural gas, for instance, according to retired school teacher Rick Koechl. However, the province has been denied an opportunity to explore its use as a cheaper alternative up to one-eighth the cost of hydro power, he said. New regulations could allow the province to recommission the idled Burrard thermal plant, he added.

"We happen to live in natural gas country here, and I think it's incumbent upon us to understand that it had potential," Koechl said.

Art Jarvis, northern representative for the Independent Contractors and Business Association, agreed that natural gas is a source of clean power. However, Site C's greatest benefit will come from having used the same water resource three times when it reaches its turbines, he said. 

Cancelling the project two years in with billions committed will send the wrong signal to investors wanting to do business in B.C., he said.

"Cancelling this project at 20 per cent completion stage broadcasts a definite message to Canadian and foreign investors that B.C., and possibly Canada, is untrustworthy to conduct business with," he said. 

"If this project is allowed to continue, and does have an excess of power generation, that translates into no power shortages for B.C. and a saleable product for the province for the next hundred-plus years."

Former Fort St. John mayor Steve Thorlakson told the commission it was important to consider the dam's 100-year life-cycle cost of Site C. Ratepayers will have to bear billions in costs if Site C were cancelled, and for no net economic benefit, he said.

"Hydro bought more power last year than it sold. But it generated a net profit of $125 million, and that's money that's to the benefit of the ratepayers," Thorlakson said.

"That's because of the beauty of hydro power."

Peace River Regional District director Karen Goodings said the regional district faced much difficulty trying to convince the previous Liberal government to undertake a proper cost analysis and demand forecast as recommended by the federal-provincial review panel that initially studied the project in 2013 and 2014. 

Today, there remains no "clear indication" Site C will remain within its $8.8-billion budget and on time for a November 2024 in-service date, she said.

"The local regional government considered it very important to have an independent examination of the proposal done before the shovels hit the ground," Goodings said.

"Our concerns were relative to what you are now undertaking, one being cost and the other being need. Had this been done, we would have lived with the outcome regardless of whether it was to build or not to build."

Arlene Boon, whose land at Bear Flat BC Hydro expropriated in December 2016, said 34 farm operations in the Peace River valley will need mitigation plans if Site C continues—plans she worries has not been budgeted for. The cost to drill new water well supplies for just three landowners has come at a $124,000 cost to BC Hydro, she said.

"Independent agrologists now have been engaged and so far not one land owner or tenure holder has a plan in place to my knowledge," she said.

BC Hydro has said it would need to collect around $3 billion in sunk and remediation costs from ratepayers if Site C were cancelled by the end of 2017. Lifting the flood reserve would open the valley to development and offset some of those costs, Boon suggested. 

"Most of these lands have a buy-back policy and, like many others, my husband and I will purchase our land back when this project is terminated," she said.

The commission holds it second hearing in Vancouver on Oct. 5 and wraps Oct. 11 in Victoria.

The commission's final report is due Nov. 1 with a cabinet decision expected by the end of the fall legislative session on Nov. 30.

Independent auditors have so far found the project's main civil works hampered by geotechnical problems that have escalated costs and forced its main contractor to file for a year-long schedule delay last month. Auditors have also raised concerns about BC Hydro's ability to keep the project on time and budget, and to accurately tender and award future contracts for construction still to come, including a generating station and transmission lines.

However, BC Hydro says delaying the project by more than a year could drive final costs as high as $12.5 billion, while cancelling the project outright and acquiring power from different sources could cost around $7 billion, it says.

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