Breaching the Peace
By Sarah Cox. On Point Press, 312 pp, softcover
For much of 2018, the controversy over the Kinder Morgan pipeline has overshadowed the gnawing and deep public concerns over the Site C dam.
Televised images of protesters being hauled away have made the pipeline story far more compelling for television news directors than a looming $10.7-billion (or more) boondoggle far away in northeastern B.C.
But a new book by Victoria environmental journalist Sarah Cox, Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley's Stand Against Big Hydro, serves as a compelling reminder of the importance of this issue.
It's a breathtaking examination of how Site C was rammed through despite its devastating impacts on public finances and an ecological treasure trove.
This is not merely a look at numbers on a balance sheet, though that alone should be sufficient to alarm the public. The cost escalations speak to the deceitful way in which this project was initially marketed to the public.
Cox also details the impact of this costly megaproject on the stunning biodiversity of the Peace River region.
Who knew that a tiny dark spider previously found only in Florida and New York could live so far north? Or that a chive only found in alpine areas in the past was thriving on a low-level island in the Peace? Or that grapes and cacti and a multitude of bird species would find this area so hospitable?
What is it about the Peace River Valley that makes it one of nature's most intriguing anomalies? And what can it tell us about the migration of species to the north as climate change accelerates?
In addressing these questions, Cox delivers science journalism of the highest order, presented with passionate intensity and relentless curiosity.
There's a particularly enlightening chapter on renewable electricity options that would be far less expensive and employ far more people than the Site C dam once it's completed.
Cox's revelations about B.C.'s tremendous geothermal opportunities and the potential of pumped-storage hydro are going to be of keen interest to electricity nerds. In this regard, she demolishes arguments by those who claim that the Crown-owned utility needs more dispatchable power in an era of rising consumption of intermittent solar and wind power.
She also demonstrates how B.C. Hydro has been cutting back on conservation programs to pump up the case for more production. This has occurred even as demand for electricity has remained flat in B.C. for a decade.
Then Cox plays her trump card: Burrard Thermal. This gas-fired power station in Port Moody was shut down by the previous B.C. Liberal government despite its value as a backup power source on the few days per year when extra capacity was needed.
For good measure, she adds the Columbia River power entitlements into the mix. They could be brought back into B.C. from the U.S. under the Columbia River Treaty because B.C. is entitled to have the power generated from the enormous Libby Dam in Montana.
Cox points out that this Libby Dam power is now being sold for about $30 per megawatt hour, whereas Site C electricity will cost $125 per megawatt hour.
"The nonsensical reason BC did not consider the Columbia River entitlement as an alternative to Site C circled back to the Campbell government's Clean Energy Act, which mandated that BC must be almost completely self-sufficient in electricity," she reveals. "The act prohibited BC from accepting Columbia River electricity generated in the United States."
But at the core of her book are the people. There's the wise and benevolent retired senior federal bureaucrat, Harry Swain, who confesses that he wasn't going to be on Christy Clark's Christmas card list for his pointed financial criticisms of the Site C project.
Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations describes the shock of learning about the grave impact of humans consuming methylmercury. It accumulates in fish and game after forests and agricultural lands are flooded by dams.
The largest fish have the highest concentrations, Cox reports.
In this section, she exposes the oft-stated lie that huge dams provide renewable power. There's nothing renewable about poisoning Indigenous people's brains with methylmercury.
Readers also meet Helen Knott, a courageous Indigenous activist who, along with others, has faced the legal wrath of B.C. Hydro's downtown Vancouver lawyers.
But at the heart of the story are landowners Ken and Arlene Boone, who've paid a huge price because provincial politicians were so eager to give in to the demands of the hydroelectricity lobby.
It's a tale of a remarkably determined group of citizens taking on an electricity monolith that has behaved like a bully in pushing forward with an utterly unjustifiable agenda to flood a river valley.
I expect it will win awards and it might eventually be adapted into a movie.
We're lucky in B.C. to have so many exceptional authors diving deeply into environmental issues.
It's an amazing piece of work by one of B.C.'s most evocative storytellers.