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‘People have a right to demand transparency’: reporter Sarah Cox on the Site C dam’s new $16 billion cost

As the project’s budget continues to grow, so too do questions about whether the dam is safe to build and why the government continues to keep information from the public. The Narwhal’s Sarah Cox offers her perspective on the latest developments

Sixteen. Billion. Dollars. 

That’s the latest, greatest price tag for a project that now holds the dubious honour of being the most expensive dam in Canadian history. Yes, I’m talking about B.C.’s Site C dam.

When Premier John Horgan announced the whopping new sum, our go-to Site C reporter Sarah Cox was there (virtually) to make sense of it all as the government doubles down on its pledge to get the project built.

After Sarah filed her breaking story (and presumably drank her fourth cup of coffee that day), I caught up with her over video on our Instagram page to suss out the facts from the political-speak. Here’s what we chatted about:

Can you tell us about the new price tag for Site C?

I think everybody had expected that there would be another cost increase for this horrendously expensive project. And people were speculating that it might reach $12 billion, but the government announced that it’s going to cost $16 billion. And this is just over five years into what is now going to be a 10-year construction project, and that officially makes the Site C dam, by our calculations, the most expensive dam in Canadian history.

One of the major reasons why we’re hearing about this new price increase has to do with this issue of slope instability and the safety concerns at the dam. I wonder if you could tell us a little about that.

The Site C dam is being built in a valley that’s notoriously unstable, prone to large landslides. We’ve known this, BC Hydro engineers flagged [potential] geotechnical problems years ago, but as construction began it became apparent that there are very, very serious geotechnical issues. When I’m talking about geotechnical issues I’m talking about the stability of the dam structure itself and the stability of the power house. And last summer it was revealed to the public, even though this had been known for some time, that the dam couldn’t proceed without a geotechnical fix. We learned [last month] that the ground underneath [the buttress for the powerhouse] has actually been moving. So they need to find a fix. But that’s just one part of the cost increase. When they announced the price increase — from less than $11 billion to $16 billion — they said 50 per cent of that was due to the geotechnical issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. But the other 50 per cent of the cost increase was not revealed. So it’s just one problem after another with this project and if the date of completion doesn’t move anymore, we’re just barely halfway through. I think we can expect some more bad news announcements.

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Why is it unstable where they’re building the dam?

The dam’s actually not being anchored to bedrock. They’re trying to anchor it to shale, which is basically compacted mud. They haven’t been able to find anything to actually anchor it to after taking down banks of this massive valley already. And so today they’re announcing they’re going to drill pipes metres into the ground and fill them with concrete and use that to anchor the dam. I know most people haven’t been to the Peace River Valley, but you can picture a spectacularly beautiful valley, very steep in places, with agricultural land largely on one side and what used to be beautiful boreal forest on the other side. But it is prone to large landslides and the terrain is just notoriously unstable.

And you got a little flavour of that because someone sent you a bucket of shale to see for yourself.

That’s right. Arthur Hadland, who’s a former Peace River regional district director, sent me a bucket of the shale. When you pick it up, it just kind of crumbles in your fingers. So that’s what we’re dealing with here.

I think the question that’s going to be on a lot of people’s minds is: ‘why is this project going ahead?’ What’s your read?

The reason that was given was there are 4,500 people working on this project, they didn’t want to lose those jobs during the pandemic. And also this idea that B.C. needs the energy. Well, every single independent look has concluded that we don’t need the energy, even with the electrification of the province. Another reason was that Premier John Horgan said it would result in a $216 annual increase to people’s hydro bills over the next 10 years if it were cancelled immediately — that’s about $18 a month. Again, we don’t know quite how they’re coming up with that number. They’ve been wrong about every other number to do with this project. Assuming that the project is completed, the cost won’t come on our hydro bills until the project comes into service, which isn’t now until 2025. 

One thing that was very notable was how the premier went to great lengths to emphasize that the NDP government inherited this from the previous BC Liberal government and there were problems right from the get-go, things that were outside of their control. As a part of the NDP taking over this project, they wanted to provide some assurances that it would be managed in a way that’s responsible and in the public’s interest. And as a way of doing that, they created something called the project assurance board. And I think many people would assume that this project has a public watchdog. But that’s not exactly the case, is it?

That is not the case at all. When the former BC Liberal government decided to proceed with the project, they changed the law to remove the watchdog independent commission [the BCUC] that looks out for the public interest from even looking at the project to see if it was in the public interest. And that oversight has not been reinstated by the NDP government. Instead what they did is they created this project assurance board. It’s been a very secretive board, even the names of the people on the board weren’t made public, certainly their findings weren’t made public until The Narwhal got some of their findings through a freedom of information request. It’s a project that’s proceeded with much secrecy. And today the government said the assurance board needed some changes, admitting essentially what many people have been saying all along, which is that it has not been looking out for the public interest.

Site C has been plagued with secrecy. We’ve published quite a few stories over the years. You’ve had to chase down documents. What are some of the basic things you’re trying to figure out to share with the public about this project that are being kept secret?

One of the basic things is just the money trail: who is making money from this? And that information has been very hard to come by. It turns out that BC Hydro has been awarding huge no-bid contracts to SNC-Lavalin, and another engineering company. These contracts didn’t go out for public tender. And unknown people at BC Hydro have also been awarding huge no-bid contracts to other companies, including numbered companies. And when we, through a freedom of information request, got the names of some of the recipients of these no-bid contracts, one of them turned out to be a numbered company that was run by executives of another company that worked on Site C that had just gone bankrupt. So there’s an astounding level of secrecy when it comes to the spending of public money and an astounding lack of oversight.

What are some of the big reactions that you’re hearing?

A whole mixed bag of reactions. The construction trade unions are happy, the BC Liberals are happy. The Union of BC Indian Chiefs is appalled that it’s continuing. West Moberly First Nations, which is going to trial next year with a landmark Treaty Rights case against the project, is also deeply dismayed that it’s continuing. The Peace Valley Landowner Association, which represents farmers and other people who will be impacted by the project, is also very upset it’s continuing. 

There’s still work to be done in terms of number crunching and looking at what this decision means with the new price tag for British Columbian ratepayers and taxpayers.

What is going on with the case that’s being brought by First Nations against this project?

That case will start next March — it will be a full six-month trial. West Moberly First Nations says the Site C dam and two previous dams on the Peace River constitute an unjustifiable infringement of their Treaty Rights. And the question of whether this project violates Treaty Rights has never been answered by the courts and the project has proceeded without that being answered. One number that’s been put out there if West Moberly wins their case is that it could add another billion dollars in a settlement claim to the cost of this project. It’s a little bit crazy that we’ve proceeded with this without determining first whether it violates Treaty Rights. And of course the project will have an enormous impact on First Nations. It’s going to flood the last tract of the Peace River Valley that’s available for traditional practices, all kinds of Indigenous burial sites and cultural and spiritual sites. It will have a huge impact.

The government has always been specific in describing this project as a clean energy project. But it turns out that large-scale hydro projects actually do have an enormous impact. Can you talk a little bit about what those environmental impacts are?

The project is basically marketed as clean energy. And indeed, compared to coal power, it will be clean energy. But large hydro dams also have an enormous environmental footprint and a carbon footprint as well due to methane emissions from the reservoirs, cutting down and burning of trees, the huge amount of concrete that’s used to build them. So really it’s been marketed as a clean energy project [but] there are a lot of people who say that we’re not talking about clean energy. 

Just to give a flavour for some of the environmental impacts: when University of British Columbia researchers looked at the project, they found Site C will have more serious adverse environmental effects than any project ever examined in the history of Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act. So that’s quite a huge impact. It includes flooding habitat for more than 100 species at risk, destroying wetlands, poisoning fish like bull trout with methylmercury — the list goes on and on. BC Hydro’s environmental impact statement for the project was 15,000 pages long.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is something the B.C. government has said it’s signing onto. How should people understand the government moving ahead with this project at the same time it’s promising to respect Indigenous Rights?

A lot of people feel there’s quite a contradiction there. UNDRIP says that large industrial projects like Site C should only proceed with the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples. Well West Moberly First Nations says it did not have their free, prior and informed consent. Prophet River First Nation, which just settled with the government, said it had not given consent for the project when it was approved. And in fact the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called on Canada’s government to halt construction of Site C until it does receive that free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples.

The Narwhal held a webinar recently where we talked about issues of Indigenous Rights and alternatives to the Site C project. I know you mentioned the claims that B.C. needs this electricity are dubious and contested. But if B.C. did want to generate more energy and clean energy in a way that was in partnership with First Nations and respected Indigenous Rights, what are some of the things that you’re hearing from organizations and communities and First Nations themselves that they want to see B.C. participating in when it comes to electricity generation?

There are all kinds of First Nations who have plans already in the works to proceed with wind energy and solar energy and geothermal energy. And Site C moving ahead means they can’t do that because B.C., with very few exceptions [for some small Indigenous-led projects], doesn’t need any more energy. So that becomes disappointing for First Nations who have already invested in clean energy proposals and for communities who want to get into building clean energy.

The future of energy is very much local. We lose 10 per cent of energy by sending the power from Site C and other dams through long-distance transmission lines. Local energy projects, clean energy projects, green energy projects, renewable energy projects — they create jobs and training opportunities. By moving ahead with Site C, which will create jobs for a short number of years, we really do close the door on more sustainable options.

Where is the power from Site C going to go?

This has been a project in search of a market since Day 1. It’s still a project in search of a market. B.C. is swimming in electricity right now. We don’t actually know where the power is going to go — it’s going to go into the grid. But we’re also holding back on a lot of power that we could be producing right now. So there’s a big question mark there still.

Do you have anything you want to put on people’s radar as they mull this news?

I think my final thought would be just that this is public money that’s being spent. It’s going to show up on your hydro bills eventually and/or as taxpayers. And that it’s been a project that’s proceeded with the utmost secrecy and that people have a right to demand transparency for public projects. That transparency is only going to come when enough people ask for it.

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