B.C. group launches court challenges against province and feds on Site C dam

VANCOUVER – A group of landowners in northeastern British Columbia is turning to the courts to quash provincial and federal environmental approvals for the multibillion-dollar Site C dam.

The Peace Valley Landowners Association filed an application for judicial review this week in B.C. Supreme Court seeking to overturn an environmental certificate issued by the province. The association plans to file another such application next week in Federal Court targeting the environmental certificate issued in Ottawa.

Ken Boon, a rancher in the valley and president of the association, said the environmental certificates should be declared invalid.

“Site C is a costly, archaic and destructive project that has been kicked around for almost 40 years and has been turned down twice in that time, and it’s been a wise decision both times not to proceed,” Boon said Wednesday in Vancouver.

“We are confident that if truly analysed, this project should have never received an environmental certificate this time around.”

The first application — which names the provincial minister of environment and the minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations — asks for an order quashing the environmental assessment certificate and a declaration that the ministers erred in issuing the certificate.

It also asks the court for a declaration that the ministers erred by disregarding a joint review panel’s recommendations to refer the project to the B.C. Utilities Commission for detailed examination.

BC Hydro declined to comment on a court action which does not name the Crown corporation.

B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett said the issue is a highly emotional one for residents who will be affected. The Crown utility has said about 10 of the 30 landowners involved will be displaced from their land.

Those valley residents have the right to turn to the courts, he said.

“I’m not going to get into the legal issues and debate that,” Bennett said. “But we know we’re going to need some new electricity … and we have to get it from somewhere. Our decision will be based on what is the best way to acquire that new electricity from a rate-payers perspective.”

As for the B.C. Utilities Commission, “I guess the judge will have to decide whether the statements made in the joint review panel’s report are legally binding on the province and the federal government or not,” he added.

Ninety-two per cent of the land required for the project is already owned by the province or BC Hydro, Bennett said.

Boon said the association has been working in tandem with local Treaty 8 First Nations, who are expected to launch their own court actions in the near future.

The $7.9-billion dam would be the third on the Peace River, flooding 5,550 hectares of land over an 83-kilometre stretch of valley. It would generate an estimated 1,100 megawatts of capacity, or enough to power the equivalent of 450,000 homes a year.

A report by a joint federal-provincial environmental assessment panel in May made no clear recommendation for or against the project.

The panel did say the power would be needed one day, but not on the timeline laid out by BC Hydro. It also said it could not come to any conclusion on the accuracy of project cost estimates.

Two weeks ago, both the provincial and federal governments issued environmental certificates for the dam, saying the benefits outweigh the impacts.

But Maegen Giltrow, lawyer for the association, said there remain too many economic unknowns.

“If the project is not economically justified, then the adverse environmental effects are not justified … and the certificate should fail,” she said.

Lawyers for the provincial government have three weeks to file a response with the court.

Last week, the Crown utility announced that construction could begin in 90 days, should cabinet give final approval.

That final investment decision is expected by the end of the year and Bennett said court action will not cause a delay.

“We have to maintain a schedule to either decide to build the project or to move on with a different way of acquiring that electricity,” he said.

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