BC Hydro violated its environmental assessment certificate for the Site C dam project, according to a B.C. government report released Thursday.
The inspection report, from the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, detailed how BC Hydro failed to develop acceptable mitigation measures for an aboriginal sweat lodge and suspected burial site, and cannot legally proceed with a bridge related to Site C highway relocation until it does so.
This means BC Hydro’s controversial highway re-location will need to be assessed again by the Environmental Assessment Office and an alternate route long supported by the First Nations may be considered after all.
“BC Hydro has not developed mitigation for known cultural values in the Bear Flats area, including the sweat lodge (and nearby camp) and the potential burial site…” noted the report, which points out that BC Hydro is well aware of the cultural importance of the area for local First Nations.
BC Hydro has been warned of non-compliance with regards to the 455-metre bridge BC Hydro planned as part of the highway relocation in an area of the valley called Cache Creek-Bear Flats, according to the 54-page report issued following a five-month investigation.
“As BC Hydro has been advised that the [Cultural Resources Management Plan] is not ‘to the satisfaction of’ the EAO and that it must be updated prior to conducting construction activities that may impact known cultural resources, it may be a non-compliance if BC Hydro were to proceed to conduct construction activities that may impact known cultural resources,” the report reads.
West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson welcomed the findings, saying that BC Hydro has been “out of line” with his nation and the Prophet River First Nation. They jointly filed a complaint with the EAO in early April.
“A Crown Corporation should be setting the bar on how other [resource project] proponents have to deal with First Nations,” Willson said.
“They’re supposed to be setting the benchmark on this thing. What they’re doing is lowering the benchmark.”
West Moberly Chief Roland Willson. Photo: Jayce Hawkins | DeSmog Canada
Willson said the two First Nations repeatedly asked BC Hydro and the former B.C. government to use a short-listed alternate route for the Site C highway relocation and Cache Creek bridge to avoid “desecrating” aboriginal grave sites and to protect the sweat lodge and traditional gathering place at the confluence of Cache Creek and the Peace River.
But BC Hydro contractors clear-cut much of the Cache Creek area in February and March, after expropriating property from third generation Peace Valley farmers Ken and Arlene Boon, leaving the land looking like a “moonscape,” according to Willson.
Willson said he was at a meeting in Vancouver in March with BC Hydro representatives to discuss the issue of the Site C highway relocation when the forest near the sweat lodge and grave site was mulched.
“They were cutting the right of way as we were down there trying to solve the issue,” Willson said. “Sneaking small pox into blankets and handing them to us, it’s the same damn thing as how they’ve been treating us.”
“They just ignore us, belittle us, disregard anything we have to say.”
A lawyer for the First Nations said about 200 letters have been sent to the Environmental Assessment Office and BC Hydro by the First Nations on this issue alone.
At the time of publication BC Hydro media relations spokesperson Mora Scott had not replied to a request for comment.
Last year, BC Hydro apologized for the devastating impacts that the W.A.C. Bennett dam had on First Nations, who lost villages, food sources, burial grounds, spiritual areas, gathering places and transportation routes when the dam’s reservoir flooded their traditional territory.
According to BC Hydro documents, the $8.8 billion Site C dam would destroy 42 sites of cultural and spiritual significance for First Nations, including burial grounds, medicine collection areas, offering places for ceremonies and prayers, and locations associated with oral histories and place names.
Willson said one aboriginal burial site beside the chosen highway route was already known by First Nations and recorded by the B.C. government’s archeology branch, but another site along the new highway’s centre line was only discovered last year.
Logging and construction along the Peace River in September 2016. Photo: Garth Lenz | DeSmog Canada
First Nations brought in an archeologist who confirmed the site had all the hallmarks of a Dunne-Za grave — a depression in the ground, high on a hill, at the confluence of two rivers “where bodies are usually laid to rest, so that they have a view.”
Dunne-Za custom does not permit the disturbance of graves, and the First Nations have said the only acceptable mitigation is to move the highway to the short-listed route.
The EAO report casts new doubt on former premier Christy Clark’s claim in June that even a slight delay in re-routing the provincial highway out of the Site C flood zone and building a new highway bridge over Cache Creek — a delay requested by John Horgan shortly before he became premier — would tack on an extra $600 million to Site C’s $8.8 billion price tag.
In fact, BC Hydro is in danger of non-compliance until it makes changes to its Heritage Management Resource Plan and Cultural Management Resource Plan to ensure mitigation measures for the sweatlodge and gravesite are developed prior to construction. The plans are are “not to the satisfaction of the EAO,” said the report.
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The report said BC Hydro must either adopt First Nations’ recommendations for avoiding harm to the sweat lodge and suspected gravesite — moving the highway to the short-listed route to avoid the area entirely — or develop new mitigation measures that meet the requirements of the EA certificate.
Any new mitigation measures must include “a detailed explanation with supporting analysis regarding why the mitigation proposed by the complainants is not necessary, is impractical, or is otherwise unreasonable,” said the EAO.
BC Hydro’s choice of highway route, according to the First Nations, would create disturbances that include “noise from truck traffic, safety (having a highway within the area where ceremony participants, including children, walk between rounds, etc.) as well as the destruction of the camp site itself, which with [the] feast house is tied to the enjoyment of the sweat and related cultural practices.”
The report determined that the general highway realignment route is consistent with the Site C environmental assessment certificate. But the bridge over Cache Creek is not, and BC Hydro must apply for an amendment to its environmental assessment certificate because it has changed the location and length of the bridge from the design originally approved, according to the EAO report.
BC Hydro has said its preferred highway route at Cache Creek was cheaper than the short-listed alternative, would affect less agricultural land and would allow for more passing opportunities for drivers.
Yet the Crown Corporation refused to release detailed information — called a Multiple Accounts Evaluation — about the relative costs and merits of the two routes, despite repeated requests from the First Nations and the Peace Valley Landowners Association, representing 70 landowners affected by Site C.
“They have a very viable option that is a win-win-win for everybody that they just refuse to acknowledge,” said Willson.
Cache Creek is one of six bridges in the Peace River Valley that will have to be rebuilt as part of a six-section, 30-kilometre highway relocation for Site C that BC Hydro documents said would cost approximately $530 million.
The area around Bear Flats-Cache Creek has “profound significance as Treaty 8 people have gathered, camped, hunted and practiced ceremony here since time immemorial,” according to a 2013 BC Hydro report that quotes NENAN, the Nenan Dane-zaa Deh Zana Child and Family Services Society, which holds annual youth and elders gatherings at Bear Flats.
Former BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald, who was fired last month by the new B.C. government, said in April that BC Hydro was “absolutely committed to meeting the terms and conditions of it environmental assessment certificate.”
“A successful project from my perspective…is environmentally sound and meets the standards that we are held to,” McDonald said in an interview with Stuart McNish for the broadcast Conversations That Matter, a partner program with the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University.
— With files from Sarah Cox
Photo: Bear Flats by Garth Lenz