Peace River power play over potential Site C dam
The potential Site C dam has fired up a passionate debate across northeastern B.C. over future energy requirements
Since arriving in northeastern B.C.’s Peace River Valley from Idaho 41 years ago, Larry Peterson has been a farmer, agricultural consultant, commercial potato grower and wholesaler, realtor, heritage conservation officer, husband, father, and grandfather. By way of introduction, the gentle 64-year-old plain-speaking giant told the Georgia Straight he has “nothing but contempt” for B.C. Hydro. If the Crown corporation gives the go-ahead for the on-again, off-again proposed Site C dam on the Peace River, the low-lying land below Peterson’s modest farmhouse will be permanently underwater.
“If I were raised differently, I’d be a terrorist and I’d kill all these people,” Peterson said from a chair in his living room. “But I wasn’t raised that way. So I don’t plan to do that.”
The northeast has already spawned the EnCana Bomber. Now Peterson wants to be the Site C slayer. And despite the ramifications of using the “t” word in this day and age, Peterson is calm and unapologetic. Given his 33-year fight against B.C. Hydro, the RCMP should conclude that Peterson’s activism is methodical and not explosive.
Arlene Boon, a neighbour and third-generation farmer at Bear Flat—the valley community just below the town of Fort St. John—decided to drop by the Peterson residence during the interview. The neighbours are a few kilometres apart and live just above “flood reserve level” signs that hang about the farming community. They show where the reservoir will flood if Site C goes ahead. Their houses are just above the line, but the lower levels would be wiped out, including some of the best agricultural land in the entire northeast of B.C.
“A lot of people say, ”˜Look at it now; it’s horse pasture,’” Peterson said, referring to the scaled-back farming on the valley floor. “Well, that’s due to Hydro and their programs. The lease-back agreements are such that no one would be encouraged to invest money to do anything like that now.”
Later that day, standing on the edge of the high ridge that looks from his home across to the Peace River, Arlene’s husband Ken Boon, a log-home restorer and builder, told the Straight that the Boon property will “probably get washed away”. Even though they are above the flood line, the sloughing—gradual land erosion as banks slide into the valley bottom—may be enough to take the house over the edge. Arlene’s grandfather Lloyd Bentley Sr. bought the land from the Dopp family, homesteaders from Kansas who came to the area on a paddleboat in 1917.
Like many dam opponents, the Boons belong to the reenergized Peace Valley Environment Association.
“We [the PVEA] want to see Site C stopped, shelved, and put away for good,” Ken said. “We want the flood reserve [level] removed and we want to see a comprehensive land-use management plan put in place. Because there’s a lot of land here that’s now held by B.C. Hydro, and one of the fears is, ”˜What if we win the battle?’ Is there going to be a land rush on all this land?”
Speaking from his own point of view, Ken expressed a common sentiment in the area: “I firmly believe we’re going to win this battle.”
In September 2007, Premier Gordon Campbell declared at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual convention that he was taking another look at Site C as a “large-scale power project”. Campbell then passed the baton on to B.C. Hydro, which he had tasked to kick-start a new feasibility study, signalling the emergence of, potentially, the largest public-sector capital project in the province’s history.
According to B.C. Hydro spokesperson Susan Danard, the budgeted amount for Site C is still somewhere between $5 billion and $6.6 billion—a figure the PVEA puts at more like $10 billion, based on updated projections.
Peterson said he first heard about Site C in 1974, when B.C. Hydro began scouting for a new dam site. In 1981 and 1982, he said, he and his wife were interveners at B.C. Utilities Commission hearings in both Fort St. John and Vancouver.
“Basically, what the commission said was that Hydro could not prove that they needed the power,” Peterson said. “Hydro didn’t have its ducks in a row.”
According to B.C. Hydro’s discussion guide for the project definition and consultation stages, Site C is expected to provide 900 megawatts of capacity annually and produce around 4,600 gigawatt-hours. Site C would be the third dam on the Peace River, downstream from the two existing hydroelectric facilities: the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams.
Old battles lines are being redrawn at Bear Flat. For the community, B.C. Hydro represents an erosion of all they have built up over the decades. Peterson said he and his father-in-law once co-owned 760 hectares of land. Up until 1978, they raised 2,000 tons of potatoes on 40 hectares on the valley bottom. Now 263 hectares belong to B.C. Hydro as part of a lease-back agreement Peterson and his father-in-law reluctantly accepted. If Site C is again rejected, Peterson can buy back the 263 hectares he didn’t buy back previously for the same price as B.C. Hydro paid.
B.C. Hydro will present a report to the provincial government this fall, which marks the end of project definition and consultation. If cabinet approves moving to stage three, the environmental-assessment phase will take two years. Like the Boons and other opponents of Site C, Peterson doesn’t want to entertain a third stage.
Strumming an acoustic guitar in his unofficial mayoral digs, the Whole Wheat ’n Honey restaurant, first-term Fort St. John mayor and former journalist Bruce Lantz knows more than most municipal politicians about Site C. In 1999, he was short-listed (and subsequently overlooked) for a position as northern communications rep with B.C. Hydro. The interview process required intense study of corporate documents pertaining to, among other topics, the wholly-owned subsidiary and trading arm of B.C. Hydro known as Powerex.
Unlike his mayoral predecessor, Jim Eglinski, Lantz is opposed to Site C. Like many opponents, Lantz said the dam will not benefit local residents or even British Columbians provincewide. He said B.C. already has enough power, and he claimed that Site C will enable mass exports of “green” power to California, or even Alberta and (indirectly) the oil-sands operations. (“It could happen.”) Lantz also claimed that the B.C. Liberal government, including former Peace River North MLA and energy minister Richard Neufeld, has manufactured an “energy deficit” to suit this export agenda.
“When they started talking about this energy deficit [in 2005], I went to [B.C. Hydro northern communications rep] Dave Conway, Richard Neufeld, and the [B.C. Hydro] CEO, Bob Elton, at different times, and said, ”˜Okay, I remember when we had this huge surplus. We used to buy and sell, and we would sell at peak price points, and we’d buy it back at low price points, and it was all good and we had lots of electricity,’” Lantz recalled. “And I said, ”˜What has changed from ’99 to ’05 so drastically that now we were in this energy deficit?’”
According to Lantz, “Nobody gave the information.”
“I said, ”˜Keep it simple, because I’m just a dumb Nova Scotian, but you should be able to provide that, because you are selling this on this concept,’ ” he said. “And they never, ever did.”
Lantz pointed to electricity trade statistics, compiled by Statistics Canada and the National Energy Board, that show that B.C. was a net exporter of energy (measured in megawatt-hours) in seven of the past 11 years—from 1998 through 2008.
Blair Lekstrom, the current energy minister and Peace River South Liberal MLA, did not return calls from the Straight.
Third-generation Bear Flat farmer Arlene
Boon and her husband, Ken, are happy to
share their thoughts about the Site C dam.
Matthew Burrows photo.
Vancouver-based Site C opponent Joe Foy, national campaign director with the Wilderness Committee, told the Straight by phone that “the [B.C. Liberal] government is bending over backwards to create a phony shortage.” Foy claimed that B.C. Hydro’s own 2007 Marbek Report contradicted government, stressing conservation measures and stating “we need not be using more power in 2027 than we used in 2007”. Foy said the Marbek Report has been shelved for now.
“When reasonable people accept that there is a shortage, then reasonable people begin to believe that we need to”¦do Site C,” Foy said.
One such person is Don Loewen, 54, who lives just north of Fort St. John in the Rose Prairie community and owns a company, Loewen D Enterprises Ltd., that contracts out on projects in the oil and gas sector. Loewen is also doing some preliminary work on-site on the nascent Site C project.
“Absolutely, I’m in favour,” Loewen told the Straight via cellphone. “It’s the only clean power that we have. The river’s already been dammed twice just above it, so one more dam isn’t going to make any difference to the river itself.”
Loewen claimed there are a “multitude of advantages” to building Site C.
“As far as the flooding of a couple of thousand acres, to me it’s trading a feather for a goose,” Loewen said. “I don’t know. I just can’t imagine that that can be a big issue.”
Down the road from Loewen at the North Peace Fall Fair in Montney—21 kilometres outside Fort St. John—farmer Dean Anderson gave a more nuanced view of Site C.
“You know, that’s a two-pronged situation,” Anderson, onetime owner of a water-well-drilling operation, said on August 16. “Here in my heart, it’s telling me that I’d hate to see us flooding another river valley. But I also don’t want to see us go to some other form of [power] generation. Because of that, weighing it all, I have to say I am in favour of Site C.”
First-term Peace River North Liberal MLA Pat Pimm is Neufeld’s replacement representing North Peace constituents in Victoria. The 52-year-old told the Straight he was born and raised in Fort St. John and remembers the Site C issue back when he was a kid watching the first Peace dam come on-line in 1968, backing up the imposing Williston Reservoir. So far, Pimm said, he is not committing to one side or the other on Site C.
“Basically, we’ll have to see what’s in the report and see what’s happening with the report, and that’s my position on it,” he said, before adding: “I don’t think that, 30 years from now, the province is going to be the same size as it is today. I think there’s going to be growth there. I think that growth is going to be one- to two-percent growth over time. That’s what it’s been. I definitely think there’s a need for power, and I think we should be pursuing power from every avenue.”
On the fast-flowing Halfway River tributary, which feeds into the more sanguine and regulated Peace River flow, West Moberly First Nations chief Roland Willson pointed out from a runabout midchannel that where he was will be underwater if Site C gets built. And according to the 43-year-old chief, the loss of natural habitat will be incalculable.
“All this stuff here is prime calving area for the ungulates: the deer, the elk, the moose,” Willson said, pointing to several small islands dotting the river. “They come in here and they get away from the predators on these little islands. It’s prime habitat for them. It’s also prime wintering area for the moose.”
Willson said that if the valley gets flooded, the water levels will rise and fall and the Halfway will be a microcosm of what will happen all over.
“It will be just a constant sloughing [away of the riverbanks],” Willson said.
Alongside Willson, former long-time government wildlife biologist and former Fort St. John city councillor Brian Churchill described rivers as “living, breathing critters”. How British Columbians treat their rivers will affect endangered “blue-listed” species like the bull trout, Churchill added.
“All the way up into all these tributaries you see the bull trout,” he said. “The biggest I’ve seen is 35 pounds. So the Halfway and the Halfway drainage is extremely important to this blue-listed wildlife species for the Peace and, in fact, for British Columbia.”
Willson said he has been working with a Canmore, Alberta–based initiative called Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) that he said aims to have the ecosystem in that vast 3,200-kilometre area thriving 1,000 years from now. Y2Y has identified the corridor from Fort St. John to Hudson’s Hope as being a “Peace bottleneck”, Willson said. He said that the west-east migratory routes of many species have to cross the Peace River.
“With the Williston and the Peace Canyon reservoirs, when they flooded that, they created a barrier there,” Willson said. “It separated”¦it fragmented the caribou migration pattern there, and it’s created a southern and a northern herd of the caribou here. And all the caribou in this area are protected under [Canada’s] SARA: the Species at Risk Act.”
These concerns are shared by Gibsons resident George Smith, former national conservation director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
According to Smith, flooding the Peace will result in an increase in greenhouse gases through the loss of trees, as well as methane release from rotting plants and organic soils. Then there is the neurotoxin methylmercury, released from the “ambient environment and plants”, which gets into the fish.
With wildlife, if mankind creates barriers and the wildlife can’t interbreed, they eventually die out, Smith said.
“So to the north of the Peace you have the Muskwa-Kechika [Management Area]—this breadbasket, living room, dining room, and everything place—which has everything for these incredibly rich wildlife populations,” Smith said. “Then to the south you have the conventional Rocky Mountains parks. If you divide those off [with a new reservoir], then that is an incredible shame in terms of the capacity for the wildlife to endure.”
With the divided opinions on Site C, what is the answer? The Wilderness Committee’s Foy said he may not have all the answers but he has questions for the B.C. Liberal government.
“Are we going to self-sufficiency?” Foy asked. “If we are going to self-sufficiency, then the Marbek Report is a really important report. Or are we becoming the northern Arabs of electricity, where we are setting ourselves up—in particular with hydroelectricity—so that we become this major exporter of power? If we are doing that, oh, hell, then you might as well dam the Fraser, dam the Peace, and dam everything, because no matter how much we dam, there will never be enough.”
Mayor Lantz said people outside the Peace cannot see the river for themselves and form an opinion based on that.
“If they [Liberals] lost every vote in northeastern B.C. because of Site C, they’d lose 22,000 votes,” Lantz said. “If you put a major project elsewhere in the province, you could lose that many votes in an eight-block radius. So this is kind of an area that is acceptable losses, maybe, in terms of votes. And, of course, the communities are split. And I think that the deep thinkers in Victoria have figured that this is a good way to go.”
Not until B.C. Hydro makes its move will the public find out if the government gives a dam.
Site C numbers
The proposed $5-billion to $6.6-billion hydroelectric project at Site C would include a 1,100-metre-long earthfill dam and concrete structures with a length of 300 metres. The reservoir behind the dam would be 83 kilometres long. According to a 2002 report by Lions Gate Consulting, 4,600 hectares of land would be flooded. Another 4,840 hectares of the watercourse would be flooded by the reservoir, and 840 hectares of low land by the reservoir would be unavailable for residential use. Approximately 63 parcels of residential land would be subject to flooding or affected by poor drainage and the relocation of roads.
> Charlie Smith