It was not a happy week for BC Hydro’s Site C dam project in northeast B.C.
First, the Alaska Highway News revealed that WorkSafeBC had slapped the project’s largest contractor, whose relationship with BC Hydro is already fraught with conflict, with a $310,000 fine for exposing workers to dangerous silica dust that can cause irreversible lung disease and cancer.
Then the same paper disclosed that BC Hydro has been hit with an order from B.C.’s environmental assessment office to control runoff water, soil erosion and sediment on the dam construction site — after BC Hydro failed to comply with a previous order to put a plan into place.
So what on earth is happening with the Site C project these days, especially since it has prematurely (and conveniently, for the NDP government) vanished from the shrinking story list of most provincial news outlets?
“A gong show,” is how Peace Valley farmer Ken Boon recently described the over-budget project, as he surveyed the construction site from a neighbour’s farm high above the Peace River.
“Most of what we’re watching right now is not building a dam,” Boon told The Narwhal.
“It’s mitigating the problems of this particular site. What they’ve been doing since 2015 is taking down the northern slope [of a Peace River bank] to make it stable enough to build a dam.”
Construction of the dam structure has not begun, with more than $2 billion of the project budget spent.
The farm lookout affords more panoramic views of the construction site and valley than the public viewpoint opened in April by BC Hydro, complete with new wooden picnic tables stamped with the BC Hydro name, telescopes and glossy displays stating erroneously that the Site C dam is the cheapest clean energy option for B.C.
The new viewing area, surrounded by a tall chain link fence, was watched over by a security guard in a pickup truck parked in a deserted parking lot on the day Boon and his wife Arlene recently visited.
The farmers’ lookout, accessed through private fields, is the place where local residents go with binoculars to try to scope out what is really happening on the project, which the B.C. government removed from independent scrutiny after a fall review exposed serious geotechnical issues and revealed the final price tag could top $12.5 billion.
The NDP government has chosen not to restore the watchdog B.C. Utilities Commission with independent oversight of the Site C project — ensuring ready access to information for the public — opting instead for a secretive “Site C Project Assurance” board whose findings have not been disclosed.
On the day the Boons visited the farm lookout, they watched a vacuum truck suck up mud and dirt near a recent landslide on the construction site, described by BC Hydro as “localized soil movement,” ferrying the goop a few hundred meters and dumping it close to where a handful of pickup trucks and men wearing white hardhats and bright safety vests congregated in discussion.
They saw an abandoned white pickup truck lying on its side partway down an embankment on the south bank of the river, and watched a steady procession of huge dump trucks carting away earth excavated from the troublesome north bank, where geotechnical instability has forced contractors to remove five million cubic meters of earth (the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic sized swimming pools) with almost three million cubic metres still to go.
“If they can’t put the [river] diversion tunnels in, they can’t build this dam,” Boon said, pointing to a spot downstream from the landslide where three drilling rigs perched on a hill stripped of vegetation.
Not far from there is the $470 million Site C workers accommodation camp with infrastructure disturbed in the prolonged search for bedrock to anchor the dam.
“It’s that simple, so we’re hopeful,” said Boon, president of the Peace Valley Landowner Association that represents 70 landowners impacted by the dam.
Work on the diversion tunnels, necessary to re-route the Peace River so the dam structure can be built, was already a year behind last fall, according to the independent review.
Landowners live on tenterhooks on expropriated farms
Most of the Boons’ third generation farm was expropriated in December 2016 for the Site C reservoir and the relocation of a provincial highway out of the reservoir zone, which would stretch for 128 kilometers along the heritage Peace River and its tributaries.
The Cache Creek valley bisecting the family’s land, replete with old cottonwoods providing habitat for migratory birds and raptors like red-tailed hawks, was clear-cut and mulched 15 months ago by BC Hydro contractors.
But bushes, trees and dozens of rare plant species found in the Site C flood zone grow rapidly in the Peace River River Valley, especially during long, hot summer days, and this year Cache Creek is once again carpeted with green. Saplings that have regenerated naturally are already four feet high.
The Boons still live in their expropriated farmhouse, built by Arlene’s grandfather, as BC Hydro battles with two First Nations over the provincial highway relocation route and seeks permission from the B.C. environmental assessment office for a new highway bridge design for Cache Creek, a special cultural area for Treaty 8 First Nations and the site of Indigenous graves.
BC Hydro cannot legally move or demolish the Boon’s farmhouse until August because migratory swallows have built nesting cups below the eaves and they are protected by provincial and federal law until after their young have fledged.
Some owners of 105 Peace Valley properties that will be impacted by the Site C dam are not as lucky as the birds.
Colin Meek, whose long-time family farm sits on the opposite side of Cache Creek to the Boon’s, near a unique wetland called Watson Slough, told The Narwhal that he will likely be forced out by the end of July.
Meek is among a dozen valley landowners who were in the first wave of Site C dam expropriations around Cache Creek a year and a half ago, some of whom have remained on their properties due to temporary lease agreements with BC Hydro.
“The house has to be moved by the beginning of August,” Meek told the Narwhal. “If it’s still here, they’re just going to push it into a hole. They’re just going to bulldoze it.”
His parents bought the family’s house back after it was expropriated by the government because “it’s a perfectly good house and there’s nothing wrong with it,” Meek said.
He said he is fed up with the demands placed on him and his family by BC Hydro and its contractors, who want access to his land, sometimes at short notice, including during the busy calving and seeding season when he is working such long hours he doesn’t have time to read emails or answer phone messages.
“The emotional toll is the same as it’s always been. A guy loses sleep at night going over meetings and conversations [and thinking] ‘should I have said this or should I have said that?’ And what are these guys actually doing? Do they care?”
“To them it’s just a job. For us it’s our life so we can’t turn that off. It’s 24 hours a day seven days a week.”
That sentiment is expressed by many landowners in the valley, more than 80 per cent of which remains unlogged three years into what was originally pegged as an eight-year construction project.
The Boons and other local residents guffaw at the NDP government’s claim that the Site C dam is one-quarter complete.
One-quarter of the project’s budget might have been spent, they say, but anyone who comes to the valley can see that a much smaller fraction of the work is finished.
Landowners hope injunction will be granted to First Nations
A 25-minute drive upstream from Meek’s organically certified farm fields, Ross and Deborah Peck examined BC Hydro maps of their riverside property, pointing to the tiny square marking the location of their custom-built log house on the cliffs of the Peace River.
BC Hydro has told them their home will not tumble into the future reservoir but that their guest cabin, about 20 metres away, will fall in.
The Pecks sat around a picnic table on their deck, which offers a stunning view of the old-growth boreal forest across the river that was set aside to become part of a B.C. protected area until the Site C project was approved by B.C.’s previous Liberal government.
Deborah Peck tried to explain what it is like to have a noisy stream of BC Hydro contractors doing everything from geotechnical drilling and testing the Peck’s well water (damaging their water pump in the process, which BC Hydro offered to fix) to cutting down cherished old-growth cottonwoods — prime habitat for birds and bats — in case they blow down on workers marking the route for a new highway bridge at nearby Farrell Creek.
“We’re going to try and live through it because we love it here. It’s a paradise,” she said.
“Some days that seems quite possible and we’re quite happy. And then other days that’s totally impossible because you get totally overwhelmed with the requests being made [by BC Hydro]. There’s phone calls, there’s emails, there’s people coming requesting site inspections. It’s a never ending stream of disruption to your enjoyment of life.”
Ross Peck said the couple expects even more disruptions and incursions this summer as contractors test the banks of Farrell Creek to determine the location of a new highway bridge.
The bridge is one of four provincial bridges that will be torn down and rebuilt as part of the Site C project highway relocation BC Hydro said eight years ago would cost $530 million.
Those bridges include one at the Halfway River, spawning grounds for threatened bull trout.
The chances that a giant wave, caused by a landslide as the reservoir fills, could damage the new Halfway bridge and support structures are so great that BC Hydro has factored in the cost of “mitigating the effects from the impact” into its highway relocation budget.
The Pecks and other Peace Valley landowners are now looking to an upcoming legal case launched by Treaty 8 First Nations, which claims the Site C dam and the previous two dams on the Peace River violate treaty rights.
If the First Nations lose their application for an injunction to stop work on Site C until the case can be decided, Boon, whose family can be removed from their third-generation home by BC Hydro with two months’ notice, says it will likely be open season on the valley and its residents.
“If this injunction is not granted in midsummer, probably once the bird window is off and they’re permitted to start logging again, I imagine we could be seeing a lot more logging and activity taking place elsewhere in the valley at that time.”
Boon said valley residents are still finding the NDP government’s December decision to proceed with the project “tough.”
“People are still having a hard time dealing with that.”
“Obviously there’s great hope that an injunction or something will come along that will stop this project yet.”