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B.C. MLAs Debate Site C, Months After Project’s Controversial Approval

Trees are already being felled in the Peace River Valley and site preparation is underway for the $8.8-billion Site C dam, which was given the go-ahead by the B.C. government in December, but on Wednesday MLAs spent the afternoon debating the megaproject.

The belated debate on the controversial project, which will flood 107 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries creating an 83-kilometre-long reservoir, was sparked by a resolution endorsing the project put forward by Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett.

The motion, which, as expected, sailed through with 39 votes in favour and 29  votes against, said the House supports Site C because “it represents the most affordable way to generate 1,100 megawatts of clean reliable power; and the Site C Clean Energy Project will create jobs for thousands of British Columbians; and the Site C Clean Energy Project has been the subject of a thorough environmental review process” — all points disputed by Site C critics, including First Nations, area residents and farmland advocates.

The debate comes on the heels of a Union of B.C. Municipalities resolution which calls on the province to send the hydroelectric dam project to the B.C. Utilities Commission for review and consultation because Site C has “raised issues, including the potential impact on B.C. Hydro ratepayers and provincial taxpayers.”

But Bennett said in the legislature that Site C has already been reviewed by several levels of experts.

“We have examined the need. We have examined the cost. We have examined the alternatives. We’ve examined the impacts. We’ve worked with First Nations as best we can. We’ve examined the environmental impact. We’ve examined the impact on agriculture. Yet the NDP claims to have a position that that’s not good enough,” he said.

In an exclusive interview with DeSmog Canada, however, Harry Swain, the chair of the Site C joint review panel, said the province should have waited to make a decision on the project until after review by the B.C. Utilities Commission. He described the failure to investigate alternatives to the dam as a “dereliction of duty.”

In addition the former CEO of BC Hydro, Marc Eliesen, said ratepayers in B.C. will face “devastating” increases to their electricity bills if Site C goes through.

The resolution appeared aimed at flushing out the views of New Democrats. The NDP is calling for a review by the B.C. Utilities Commission, but, while some New Democrats are adamantly against the dam, others have not come out against the project, which is supported by many union members.

“I’m hopeful that members of the opposition will let us know where they stand,” Bennett said.

It was a stance that infuriated New Democrat Scott Fraser, who called the motion a political stunt.

“The B.C. Liberals forced through the approval of this project already. They started construction five weeks ago,” he said.

“This motion is just a political game. It has no bearing one way or another on the outcome.”

No NDP MLAs voted in favour of the motion.

Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver said in an interview it is the type of debate that MLAs should be having — but it should have happened before a decision was made.

“I think this place would function a lot better if they had more debates like this, but they have to be meaningful, which means having them before they start construction and cutting down trees,” he said.

The NDP has been “floundering” on the topic, said Weaver, who wants government to rethink the project.

“I have been pointing out for several years now that Site C is the wrong project at the wrong time,” he said.

“There are clear, viable and cheaper alternatives which the government is deliberately ignoring in order to justify a truly damaging decision. Imagine if we invested $9-billion into the clean technology sector, what a boost that would mean to the economy and employment around the province.”

For New Democrats such as George Heyman, the promise of 10,000 jobs does not compare to the number of jobs he believes could be created through smaller power projects, alternative energy — such as geothermal, wind and solar — and reducing energy requirements by retrofitting homes.

“Why would you settle for so few jobs when other alternatives have the potential for many more jobs?” asked Heyman, who also took issue with the Site C costs, which, he said have escalated by almost $1-billion in the course of a year.

“This government is addicted to expensive megaprojects that spiral out of control,” he said.

Outside the legislature speakers at a rally, attended by more than 100 people, also called for the government to rethink its decision.

Organizer Ana Simeon, Sierra Club of B.C. coordinator, said she believes the debate was held because the UBCM vote and continuing First Nations opposition is making the government nervous.

There are also other challenges in the works including court appeals by the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations and the Peace Valley Landowner Association, that will be heard in November, and a UNESCO investigation into threats posed by Site C to the Peace/Athabasca delta and Wood Buffalo National Park, Simeon said.

“The two reasons we are so adamantly opposed to this are First Nations opposition — after the Tsilhqot’in decision it is unconscionable to ram something like this through — and the food security situation is getting really serious. This valley has strategic importance for B.C.,” she said.

Image: Larissa Stendie via Twitter

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