Site C dam Freedom of Information

B.C. withholds press materials drafted for Site C cancellation scenario

Docs would shed light on whether decision to proceed with $10.7 billion megaproject was foregone conclusion

B.C.’s energy ministry says it prepared communications materials, including draft news releases, to support a “terminate scenario” leading up to the government’s decision about the Site C dam last December.

But those materials and associated e-mails were all redacted from a Freedom of Information (FOI) response package, according to energy ministry communications director David Haslam.

Last week The Narwhal quoted from the response package, showing that senior members of B.C.’s energy ministry drafted a press package — saying the Site C project would proceed — nearly one week before the pivotal December 6 meeting at which Premier John Horgan and his cabinet colleagues supposedly gave the green light to continue construction of the $10.7 billion dam.

The article quoted a December 1 e-mail from Haslam saying he was awaiting cancellation narrative documents before producing a suite of materials for the cancellation scenario, and noted that no such documents appeared.

The Narwhal also revealed that the government chose the worst case scenario out of 12 different scenarios to demonstrate hydro rate increases if Site C were cancelled.

In an e-mail to The Narwhal, Haslam said the “terminate scenario” documents were removed in accordance with B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, on the grounds that they contained “confidential advice or recommendations to Cabinet.”

About 70 pages were redacted from a 280-page Freedom of Information response package asking for communications materials related to last December’s Site C dam announcement. Sections of other pages were also redacted.

“I can assure you that communications materials, including draft news releases, were prepared to support both a terminate scenario and a complete scenario,” Haslam said.

Sara Neuert, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), a Vancouver-based non-profit society promoting freedom of information and privacy rights in Canada, said it is important to differentiate between advice to cabinet and information for cabinet.

The latter should be publicly disclosed, she said.

Redactions are far too common in Freedom of Information response packages, Neuert told The Narwhal.

“It’s a serious issue. They’ll redact a whole page, and how do you really know that [the] whole page really covers a section that they’re claiming it covers?”

Legitimate reasons for redactions under B.C.’s freedom of information legislation include “policy advice or recommendations,” “legal advice” or because disclosure would be “harmful to the financial or economic interests of a public body.”

Neuert said while some government information must remain confidential, staff who vet Freedom of Information requests sometimes have a very liberal interpretation of permitted redactions and could benefit from more training to ensure the public interest is served.

“Checks and counter checks” need to be put into place to ensure British Columbians have access to information and “understand how the government is doing business,” she said.

Ken Boon, president of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, representing 70 landowners impacted by the Site C dam, said the government’s justification for redacting all Site C project cancellation scenario documents, including any e-mails referring to those documents, “lacks any credibility.”

“It’s very hard to accept,” Boon said. “To think that somewhere out there in cyberspace they created an alternative scenario — I just can’t believe that.”

The landowner association is calling on the government to release the redacted pages showing staff prepared a suite of communications materials for a cancellation scenario.

“I think it’s on them to prove to us that they actually did it,” said Boon.

Neuert said the only way to challenge the redactions is to file a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. The office has the power to launch an investigation that could take months or years.

Haslam pointed out that the government received 126 Freedom of Information requests related to the Site C dam decision and has released “thousands of pages” of response documents.

The response package to one of those Freedom of Information requests includes a document sent to the B.C. Green Party on November 28 with answers from the energy ministry to questions the Green Party asked about the Site C dam and BC Hydro.

The document was sent through the Confidence and Supply Agreement Secretariat, an office dedicated to managing consultations between the B.C. NDP and the B.C. Green Party to support the stability of a NDP minority government.

In response to a Green Party question about the risk posed to B.C.’s credit rating from cancelling the Site C dam, the energy ministry stated that credit rating agencies were “fully aware” of the government’s pending decision about whether or not to proceed with the project.

The ministry reminded the Greens that Standard and Poor’s had reaffirmed B.C.’s Triple-A credit rating only two weeks earlier.

The spectre of a downgrade in B.C.’s Triple-A credit rating as a result of terminating the Site C dam was used by the NDP government to justify its decision to proceed with the project, whose price tag climbed by another $2 billion last fall.

Reporters were told that the biggest risk of cancelling Site C was that credit rating agencies could “determine that BC Hydro was no longer a commercially viable entity.” That would “likely” lead to a downgrade of B.C.’s credit rating and higher interest costs, the government claimed.

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Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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