Heavy machinery is muddying the waters of the Peace River and trees are being felled in preparation for construction of B.C.’s controversial Site C dam, but First Nations and area residents believe the $9-billion dam can still be stopped in its tracks.
The hydroelectric megaproject will wipe out prime farmland and flood 107 kilometres of river valley bottom and, at a rally outside Victoria Courthouse Wednesday, George Desjarlais, a West Moberly First Nation elder, said the court challenges will continue and the battle has only just begun.
“We don’t know how to quit, we don’t back away, we don’t stop, we do not give up,” he said to cheers and drumming from the crowd of about 200 people.
In addition to an application by West Moberly and Prophet Lake First Nations, asking the B.C. Supreme Court to quash construction permits, First Nations are appealing the granting of provincial and federal environmental assessment certificates, arguing the decisions infringe on treaty rights.
A decision on the West Moberly and Prophet Lake application is likely to take several weeks, said lawyer Matthew Nefstead.
Requests for judicial reviews were previously turned down and efforts by the Peace Valley Landowner Association to obtain a judicial review were also rejected.
But Site C opponents believe the tide is about to turn.
Bolstering their hopes is the new federal Liberal government and promises by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to respect treaties, strengthen environmental assessment processes and restore environmental regulations.
“I think we are a long way from the point of no return when it comes to shutting this project down,” Ken Boon, president of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, said in an interview.
“We are not planning on Site C destroying this valley and, with the new federal government, there’s still a need for a lot of federal permits for this to proceed,” he said.
A bonus is that Canada’s new Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, has twice taken part in the annual Paddle for the Peace, Boon said.
“When we saw her appointment we all said ‘yes.’ We all have great expectations. She understands the situation of Site C better than any former Conservative minister and understands the huge First Nations issues around Site C,” he said.
Wilson-Raybould could not be reached Wednesday.
Opponents of the dam are also buoyed by the provincial NDP energy plan, released this week, that makes no mention of Site C and instead looks at energy efficiency retrofits, upgrades to facilities such as the existing Revelstoke Dam and emerging energy sources such as wind and solar.
The NDP want Site C referred to the B.C. Utilities Commission and George Heyman, New Democrat spokesperson for the green economy and clean energy, said in an interview that a project that will have such a serious impact on First Nations should not go ahead without serious review.
Heyman stopped short of saying Site C would be cancelled if the NDP forms government, but pointed to the possibility that the courts will halt construction.
“We don’t know where the project will be at that point with the court cases. The project may be stopped either permanently or by injunction,” he said.
“On top of that we have said there’s a better way for British Columbians to deal with our power needs and capacity needs into the future without spending $9-billion and putting all the eggs in one basket,” he said.
Despite misgivings from some unions, the caucus is united behind the energy plan, Heyman said.
“There are twice as many jobs in retrofits and energy conservation than dam construction,” he said.
In the meantime, Heyman said no irreversible work should be taking place around the Peace River.
Boon has complained to BC Hydro about merchantable timber being mulched instead of harvested and sold and contractors walking machines across the water, sending silt and debris into the river, instead of building temporary bridges or using barges.
The construction activities violate regulatory conditions, he said.
“There are a lot of options and walking equipment through the river is not one of them. There’s a kind of wild west atmosphere down there and they know they have the full backing of government.”
Photo sent to me by a source. Appears to be two excavators dragging themselves across the Peace River at Site C. pic.twitter.com/bHX96iKmfw
— Jonny Wakefield (@jonnywakefield) October 19, 2015
— Jonny Wakefield (@jonnywakefield) October 19, 2015
Desjarlais said it is devastating to watch the destruction.
“They have equipment in the middle of the river,” he said.
“They say they have permits, but we were never consulted. It’s damaging fish habitat, the hydraulic fluid and fuel and oil on the machines is all washing downstream.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups is calling on Trudeau to keep Site C out of Canada’s climate strategy at the upcoming Paris climate talks.
“We ask that the federal government recognize that Site C is not a climate solution and that it not give support to the B.C. government in Paris regarding Site C,” says a letter signed by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Sierra Club B.C, Peace Valley Environment Association, Peace Valley Landowner Association, Wilderness Committee and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
Site C is a net contributor to climate change through direct emissions, loss of carbon sinks and indirect emissions from hydro electricity being used for fracking and LNG development, it says.
“Our message is don’t buy the greenwash,” said Ana Simeon of the Sierra Club.