Do we really need Site C?

By Briony Penn, July/August 2014

This is just one of many projects being pushed forward without adequate consideration of costs and benefits.

In 1972, Justice Thomas Berger was appointed to conduct a federal government inquiry into a proposed oil and gas pipeline in the Mackenzie Valley. The Berger Inquiry set a new international standard for energy hearings that considered: the global energy context; the local impacts to aboriginal subsistence; and the impact of not just a pipeline but the expanded concept of an energy corridor, complete with roads, platforms and infrastructure. The ability to secure funding for First Nations and environmental groups captured the interest of the international community and was copied around the world. 

Forty years later, we’ve lost ground and are in a democratic crisis. Every single major energy project hearing that we have been subjected to in the last ten years has broken with basic principles of full contextual understanding of energy needs, and economic and environmental costs. We are not dealing with panels that are insulated politically or economically from the project developers. 

Today, the National Energy Board’s ability to address issues adequately has been hampered by political interference with terms of reference, restrictive timelines, the assessment process, reduced involvement of communities, restricted access to media, recording of witnesses and reduced scientific expertise in government. Even more egregious is that adequate testimony on the global energy context is not allowed, even though it’s more relevant today than ever with climate change. 

Within that deteriorating political context we are suddenly facing projects of a scale far surpassing that of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. A partial list of proposals in BC would include two bitumen pipelines, the Site C dam, expansion of coal ports, a highly expanded rate of gas well drilling and fracking, coupled with new gas pipelines and LNG terminals beyond counting. Investment interest has been whipped to a frenzy, but we don’t know if it’s hot air, hot oil, hot water or some combination of all three. The difficulty is that no trustworthy body has been charged with accurately communicating to the citizens of BC and Canada if any of these mega projects are even legal, let alone provide any long-term environmental, energy or economic security. Ignoring impacts on climate change, of course, being the biggest risk to security of all.

Given this situation, what recourse do Canadians concerned about this extraordinary loss of democratic process have? What is the best way to respond?


THE RECENT PROVINCIAL and federal governments’ Joint Review Panel (JRP) decision to push BC Hydro’s Site C Dam proposal back to the politicians has motivated those questioning the merit of the project to demand a national discussion focused on citizens’ concerns. 

The political decision may come as early as October. The JRP described Site C’s environmental impacts as “significant.” According to Anna Johnston of West Coast Environmental Law, which is representing the Peace Valley Environment Association, citizens groups are now sharpening their pencils. They intend to show how the environmental impacts of flooding 55 square kilometres of land could be justified only if the need for energy is unambiguous—and that Site C is the only cost-effective way to meet those energy needs.  

The JRP concluded that basing a $7.9-billion project on a 20-year demand forecast without an explicit 20-year scenario of prices is not good practice. Treaty 8 First Nations are endorsing the recommendations from the JRP to send this project to the BC Utilities Commission for “detailed examination.” Their consultant, Rick Hendriks with Camerado Energy Consulting, noted that, “The reality is that we don’t yet need Site C…it is not needed any time soon, and by the time it would be needed, there will be alternatives that don’t bring these local impacts, at costs below those of Site C.”

Treaty 8 First Nations and their energy consultants are helping out by providing expertise on alternative energy strategies to meet future requirements, all at costs and risks lower than those of Site C—and without the environmental consequences.

So what are the local environmental impacts and how well have they been characterized by the proponent BC Hydro in their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)? BC Hydro provided five volumes of evidence. You can find them on two shelves in the Legislative Library, as well as online. 

Here’s a distilled list of wildlife and ecosystems the JRP judged would be adversely affected by Site C: fish, fish habitats, sensitive ecological communities, valley bottom wetlands, migratory birds, 23 species at risk from Sharp-tailed Grouse to Baltimore Orioles, various species of bats, many invertebrates, breeding and staging habitat for migratory birds in the valley bottoms, impacts to mammals such as the rare fisher and ungulates like caribou and moose within the context of cumulative impacts of the region. Traditional fishing, hunting and trapping would all be permanently impacted, as would all the cultural sites inundated by the huge development. 

To give just one example of significant cultural loss: Site C reservoir would lap up against the Charlie Lake cave complex that is one of the oldest continuously used archaeological sites in Canada, a site that reveals nearly 11,000 years of human occupation of this valley.

In BC Hydro’s Environmental Impact Statment under “Environmental Changes Resulting from Previous Developments” (section 11.1.2), one would assume that there would be a rigorous assessment of what impacts the sister WAC Bennett Dam has already caused to the region and its people. After all, that dam inundated 1660 square kilometres along 360 kilometres of the Findlay, Parsnip and Peace river valleys—a riparian zone longer than Vancouver Island. 

One would expect more than six short pages detailing impacts from a project that at one time was up there with Prudhoe Bay as the largest engineering project in the world. The WAC Bennett Dam had a profound impact on wildlife and the First Nations who depended on it along the three rivers. The testimony of First Nations after the flooding of the three rivers was never officially gathered until long after most of the affected people had died. Of those still alive, their testimony is relegated to “perceived” impact. BC Hydro makes reference to this in a section called “Historic Grievance Regarding Existing Facilities.” 

In the one paragraph on the topic, the reader is directed in a footnote to Volume 1: Appendix H: “Aboriginal Information Distribution and Consultation Supporting Documentation.” If you read nothing else, read Appendix H. This is a gold mine of hard questions where all the relevant gaps in knowledge are identified: from mercury contamination to climate change, from querying the energy requirements to advocating for better demand-side management. The First Nations have suffered the consequences, asked the questions, and put together substantive arguments.

One example concerns the methylmercury levels that accumulated in the water, sediments, and fish that followed the creation of the WAC Bennett reservoir. Mercury poisoning is no light matter. When mercury poisoning, or Minimata disease, was first connectd to industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation in Japan in the 1950s, it was deemed an international disaster that shocked the world. It eventually led to some $86 million in compensation for victims. 

BC, on the other hand, has never conducted baseline studies on mercury levels in fish or humans. Nor did we conduct studies on the impacts of mercury poisoning on aboriginal health due to the dam. One short paragraph in the EIS mentions that recent measurements show concentrations of mercury in fish have declined to levels “reflective of expected pre-regulation conditions.” Mercury levels typically peak up to a decade after a reservoir goes in, then slowly decline. Not only do we not know what pre-regulation conditions were, but the fact that we can only anticipate a decline of toxic amounts of mercury after 50 years offers no consolation.

Canada has constitutional requirements for the protection of fish and game, protection of human health, and the limitations of risk to the people of Canada. As a consequence, many believe the main recourse now on Site C is through the justice system and supporting First Nations’ and citizen challenges. Court battles are expensive though, and Hendricks, representing the Treaty 8 Nations, hopes the governments will do as suggested and have the big, broad energy discussion that is so badly needed around energy alternatives and demand. 

Treaty 8’s commissioned report Need for, Purpose of and Alternatives to the Site C Hydroelectric Project is available online. It highlights the notion that standing behind First Nations and community efforts (including helping with their costs) is one of the best things we can do in this dark time.

Briony Penn has just completed a biography of zoologist Ian McTaggart Cowan, one of Canada’s fathers of conservation.