EXCLUSIVE: BC Hydro Spent $20 Million Quietly Buying Land for Site C Before Dam Was Approved

BC Hydro spent more than $20 million quietly buying up Peace Valley property for the Site C hydro dam in the four years before the project was approved, according to documents obtained by DeSmog Canada.

The cost of the land purchases has never been publicly disclosed by BC Hydro, and only came to light as a result of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Even then, it took more than four months after the request was filed for BC Hydro to release the figures, and the information was only provided following an appeal to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) after BC Hydro said it was extending the legal deadline for response. The OIPC found that BC Hydro “did not provide sufficient evidence” to justify a time extension.

To put the $20 million price tag into perspective, the cost of an average three-bedroom detached single family home in Hudson’s Hope is about $220,000, according to local realtor Nicole Gilliss, who is also a councilor for Hudson’s Hope, the district most affected by the Site C dam.

BC Hydro now owns at least 80 properties in the district, according to the Hudson’s Hope municipal office, including a former subdivision on the town’s outskirts.

Information about the total amount of money BC Hydro spent on land purchases in the years prior to Site C’s approval came as a surprise to Ken Boon, president of the Peace Valley Landowners Association, which represents 70 landowners who will lose homes and property to Site C if the project continues.

“That kind of indicates to me that maybe their land acquisition policy wasn’t that passive after all,” Boon told DeSmog Canada.

BC Hydro Not Allowed to Approach Landowners Until Dam Approved

Until Site C was approved in December 2014, BC Hydro was not permitted to approach Peace Valley landowners about selling property for the dam. Instead, Boon explained, BC Hydro could only acquire property if landowners went directly to the crown corporation.

“If people approached them and said, ‘we want to sell and you look like you’d be the best buyer around,’ then they could talk to them, but only then, not before that.”

In 2015, the year following Site C’s authorization, BC Hydro spent an additional $3.7 million on property purchases for the project.

Like many other financial details about the $8.8 billion hydro dam, the land acquisition budget is not something BC Hydro will discuss publicly.

BC Hydro’s Site C spokesperson Dave Conway did not respond to requests for comment about the land purchases. Nor did Conway respond to a previous request asking for the total amount of money BC Hydro spent on Site C land acquisitions in 2016 and the total amount it had budgeted for land purchases for 2017 and beyond.

The price tag for Site C’s property acquisitions does not include the cost of land and homes that were expropriated by BC Hydro in December 2016 and early 2017.

And if the new B.C. government decides to proceed with Site C, following a quick economic review ordered by the government, BC Hydro must still buy or expropriate land from dozens more farmers, ranchers and Hudson’s Hope homeowners whose properties lie in the footprint of the dam’s huge reservoir and in the path of the planned relocation of a provincial highway away from the flood zone.

Most of the scenic family farm Boon owns with his wife Arlene was expropriated by the B.C. government last December, as part of the first wave of Site C expropriations. The Boons have been permitted to stay in their third generation farmhouse, now owned by BC Hydro, pending the results of the independent review of Site C’s economics and impact on hydro rates by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

Land Purchases Spread Across Five Decades

The FOI response reveals a pattern of Peace valley real estate purchases over the decades that dovetails with the Site C policy of the government of the day.

In the 1970s, when the government first planned to build Site C, BC Hydro spent almost $4.5 million on land purchases for the project, or the equivalent of close to $20 million in today’s dollars.

During the 1980s, BC Hydro spent $3 million — or just over $6 million in today’s dollars.

That amount is likely whittled down from the previous decade’s real estate tab because in 1983 the B.C. Utilities Commission quashed the government’s plans to build Site C, saying then that there was no pressing need for the electricity and recommending that the project not proceed at that time.

BC Hydro’s real estate purchases trailed off sharply after Site C was rejected for a second time in 1993 — that time by BC Hydro’s board of directors. The board concluded that the project was unnecessary, too costly and too damaging to First Nations and the environment.

BC Hydro spent only $16,000 buying land for Site C during the 1990s, according to the FOI response.

But everything shifted following the 2005 provincial election, which saw Gordon Campbell’s Liberals win their second term. That year, Campbell named Jessica McDonald as his deputy minister. McDonald went on to become BC Hydro’s president and CEO, a position she held until a few weeks ago when she was fired by the new B.C. government.

Land purchases for Site C began to accelerate after 2005, indicating that plans to build a third dam on the Peace River were churning behind the scenes in government and BC Hydro long before Campbell’s public announcement in April 2010 that the government intended to proceed with a regulatory review of the project, whose cost was then pegged at about $6 billion.

In 2008 and 2009, BC Hydro spent more than $1.8 million buying land for Site C. In 2010, no property purchases were made, according to the FOI response, which came with a disclaimer, saying that, “BC Hydro makes no representations as to the accuracy of this information.”

Acquisitions Accelerated in 2011

Acquisitions picked up in 2011, when the public utilities company spent $11.1 million buying homes and property for Site C. That was followed by approximately $1.6 million BC Hydro spent on land purchases in 2012, $3.4 million in 2013 and $4.8 million in 2014.

By 2012, BC Hydro’s Peace Valley landholdings included almost 1,000 hectares of farmland — an area the size of two and a half Stanley Parks —  according to a report submitted to the Joint Review Panel that examined Site C for the federal and provincial governments.

All told, not including any adjustments for inflation, BC Hydro spent $33.8 million on land purchases for Site C from 1970 to 2015.

In December 2014, with McDonald by her side, Premier Christy Clark announced that the province would proceed with Site C, following a fast-tracked environmental review under new regulations put into place by the former Stephen Harper federal government.

Before Site C was approved, BC Hydro commonly bought entire properties that would be affected by the dam. But once the project received a green light, Boon said BC Hydro indicated to Peace valley landowners that it would only buy or expropriate parcels of land that would be directly affected by the dam and its reservoir, leaving rural families wondering how they would be able to continue their businesses on the carved up pieces of their former farming and ranching operations.

A case in point is last December’s expropriation of the Boon’s land. The family lost 130 hectares of land. They were left with full ownership of 33 devalued hectares of land flanking what was slated to become a new provincial highway section and 25 hectares of land over which BC Hydro placed a statutory right of way.

Boon said that means they have effectively been left with just four hectares of viable farmland.

“Once you start chopping up these places into smaller pieces they’re not so economically feasible anymore as a farming operation,” he said. “There’s basically enough for a big garden or maybe the world’s smallest market garden.”

As the Boons and other valley landowners wait on tenterhooks until the BCUC’s final report is delivered November 1, the closet thing to a silver lining for valley families is found in B.C.’s expropriation act.  The act stipulates that if expropriated land is no longer required for a project BC Hydro must offer first buying rights to the owners from whom the land was taken.

“We would buy the property back in a heartbeat,” Arlene Boon told DeSmog.

Photo: Ken and Arlene Boon on their farm in the Peace Valley. By Jayce Hawkins.

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