Environmental review panel to begin hearings on B.C.’s proposed Site C dam

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – To Gwen Johansson, the most valuable thing about the Peace River that wends its way though northern British Columbia and Alberta is the view from her kitchen window.

It’s been her home for almost 40 years, but it will be one of dozens flooded if BC Hydro’s $8-billion Site C hydroelectric dam is approved. Johansson is one of a small but determined group of landowners who hope to convince an environmental review panel that the Crown agency’s “clean” hydro power plans are not so green.

“I live here because of the valley, because it’s such a beautiful place to live,” says Johansson, who is also the mayor of Hudson’s Hope, a small community of about a thousand people that will find itself with a reservoir view — minus a riverfront road or two — should the dam go ahead.

Joint federal-provincial review hearings under the banner of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency are set to begin Monday in Fort St. John. The panel will spend weeks travelling to communities throughout the region.

The $7.9-billion hydroelectric dam would be built seven kilometres downstream from Fort St. John and flood an 83-kilometre stretch of the Peace River upstream. It would also flood 10 kilometres at the mouth of the Moberly River and 14 kilometres of the Halfway River that feed into the Peace.

The dam would provide enough power for the equivalent of 450,000 homes and is the centrepiece of BC Hydro’s plans for meeting electricity needs over the next 20 years, when the Crown utility anticipates a 40 per cent increase in demand.

But it is what will be lost, not what will be gained, that weighs on local residents.

The Peace Valley is a micro-climate in a chilly northern region where farmers can grow produce impossible just a few kilometres away, such as corn and melons. The project would result in the largest single removal of land in the history of the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve.

The Peace Valley Environment Association says the amount of land at issue is also misleading. While almost 100 square kilometres of forest and farmland will be flooded, association spokeswoman Andrea Morison says another 230 square kilometres of land will be behind “impact lines,” where banks may slough off into the water over time.

Historical sites, aboriginal grave sites and areas of significance to area First Nations would be underwater, including Rocky Mountain Portage House, a Northwest Company trading post built in 1805.

“This river is very much a heritage river. It was the route of the fur traders,” Johansson says, adding that explorers Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser both came though the valley.

The Treaty 8 Nations also oppose the dam. George Desjarlais of the West Moberly band says the project will cut off a migration corridor for foothills wildlife in the same way the W.A.C. Bennett dam built in the 1960s cut off the migration corridor for mountain wildlife.

“On the south side of the reservoir, the sheep the goats and the caribou started to decline. Today, there’s no goats that we know of,” Desjarlais says. “Caribou are completely declining, to the point where they’re listed as an endangered or threatened species both by the province and the federal government.”

Site C will cut off the migration route of foothill ungulates such as deer, elk, and moose, Desjarlais says.

It would be the third dam on the Peace River in the region inundated with oil and gas development. The W.A.C. Bennett Dam is 19 kilometres upstream from Hudson’s Hope, and the Peace Canyon Dam, six kilometres.

Documents filed with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency suggest 30 landowners will be affected, but Johansson says BC Hydro has been purchasing land quietly for 30 years — a policy that has slowly depopulated the area and eroded opposition.

Even the economic viability of the multibillion-dollar project will be questioned in the coming weeks.

“We know that in order to attract the most attention from the public, we need to talk about how it’s going to affect their pocketbooks,” says Morison, the Peace Valley Environment Association spokeswoman.

“Environmental concerns are secondary to the vast majority.”

It’s not the first time residents have wrestled with Site C.

The project has twice been rejected by the B.C. Utilities Commission in the 1980s. This time around, the project will not be reviewed by the commission.

Last week, Esther and Poul Pedersen watched a herd of elk swim across the river from their property a few kilometres west of Fort St. John. From the cliff’s edge, Poul can point to where the dam would be built downstream.

The dream home where they operate a horse ranch will be in the impact zone within which the banks may erode over time. They say BC Hydro has offered to buy them out, but they’re not selling.

The valley has paid its portion of the cost of progress, Poul says.

“Nobody is saying we don’t need the energy,” Esther says. “Get it somewhere else.”

Under new federal rules, the environmental review hearings will wrap up by the end of January. A decision is expected by mid-year.