Earthfill dam photo_0

Site C dam builder fined $1.1 million for discharging contaminated wastewater 

In B.C.’s Peace River, home to at-risk species, more than three million litres of wastewater contained a concentration of aluminum ‘acutely lethal’ to fish

The contractor building the Site C hydro dam in northeast B.C.’s was fined $1.1 million this week after pleading guilty to discharging more than three million litres of contaminated wastewater into the fish-bearing Peace River.

Peace River Hydro Partners — a partnership between the Spanish corporation Acciona and the South Korean corporation Samsung — was also added to Canada’s environmental offenders registry. The registry contains information about corporate convictions under federal environmental laws. 

The conviction stems from an event in September 2018, when large volumes of rainwater flowed over potentially acid-generating rock exposed during excavations for the $16-billion hydro dam. 

Acid rock drainage poses a threat to fish and other aquatic life through acidification of water and elevated concentrations of metals such as copper, cadmium, iron, zinc and aluminum.

An investigation by Environment and Climate Change Canada determined water management infrastructure for the Site C project was insufficient to treat the additional drainage. Holding ponds reached capacity during the heavy rainfall, so Peace River Hydro Partners released wastewater into the Peace River. The river, which flows into Alberta, supports 33 fish species, including at-risk species such as bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout and spottail shiner.

“The contaminated drainage water had a low pH (acidic) and a high concentration of metals,” according to a news release from Environment and Climate Change Canada. A sample of the drainage water determined it contained “a concentration of aluminum that was acutely lethal to fish,” contravening the federal Fisheries Act, the news release said.

Peace River Hydro Partners and BC Hydro were also charged for failing to immediately report the discharge. Those charges were stayed in court, Greg Alexis, Site C manager of public affairs and community relations, confirmed in an email, meaning guilt or innocence was not determined. “We understand that a stay of proceedings is a direction from the Crown prosecutor that they will not be proceeding on the charges,” Alexis said.

“There were no impacts detected to fish or aquatic life in the Peace River and there have been no further incidents since this event,” Alexis said. He said BC Hydro undertook a review of water systems following the event and is pleased the matter is settled.

“We are committed to being in environmental compliance on the Site C project and meeting our regulatory obligations.”

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Fines for violating the Fisheries Act are increasingly hefty. In 2021, Teck Resources was ordered to pay $60 million — the biggest fine in Canadian history — after pleading guilty to polluting fish-bearing waterways in B.C.’s Elk Valley, where the company operates metallurgical coal mines. 

The fine paid by Peace River Hydro Partners will go to the federal government’s environmental damages fund to support projects that have “a positive impact on Canada’s natural environment,” according to the release.

Site C dam will help power LNG industry 

Peace River Hydro Partners is the main civil works contractor for the Site C project, a job worth about $1.75 billion. It’s responsible for building the earthfill dam, two diversion tunnels and the concrete foundation for the dam’s generating station, spillways and dam buttress. 

The Site C dam will flood 128 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries, destroying some of Canada’s richest agricultural land, habitat for more than 100 species at risk of extinction, First Nations grave sites and Treaty 8 hunting, fishing and trapping grounds. BC Hydro says the dam, which has been plagued with geotechnical problems, will produce enough energy to power the equivalent of 450,000 homes. An independent review commissioned by the B.C. government found the same amount of energy could be produced by a suite of renewable energy sources, including wind, for about half the price of the dam.

Ken Boon Peace Valley Site C dam
A farmer looks out over construction at the Site C dam in 2019. The dam and its reservoir will eradicate more than 6,400 hectares of farmland in the Peace River Valley. Photo: Jayce Hawkins / The Narwhal

Discounted energy from the Site C dam and other publicly funded hydro projects will help power B.C.’s nascent liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, which requires vast amounts of electricity to comply with the province’s emissions requirements.

The Site C dam is the most expensive dam in Canadian history, and not nearly the largest. Approved as an $8.8 billion project in 2014, the dam’s price tag soared to $10.7 billion just three years later. The BC NDP government approved another increase in 2021, inflating the budget to $16 billion. 

The BC Utilities Commission, a financial watchdog that looks out for the public interest, would normally oversee projects such as Site C, but the previous BC Liberal government changed the law to remove the commission from financial oversight. The BC NDP government did not restore oversight after the party came to power in 2017.

BC Hydro customers will start to pay for the debt-funded Site C project when the power comes on-line, likely in 2025. 

In 2020, an investigation by The Narwhal revealed top B.C. officials knew the stability of the Site C dam posed a “significant risk” more than one year before the public was informed. 

International experts approved what former B.C. Premier John Horgan called a “fix” for the dam’s weak foundation. The experts found the dam will be “safe and reliable” and will meet safety guidelines established by the Canadian Dam Association. They also said their opinions were based on information provided by the Site C project team and ultimate decisions and responsibilities for design rest with BC Hydro. 

An international hydro expert who worked on large hydro dams around the world, including the Three Gorges dam in China, described the secrecy surrounding construction of the Site C dam as “extraordinary.” 

The reservoir flooding for the Site C project is anticipated to begin as early as this fall.

Updated on August 2, 2023, 12:31 p.m. PT: The article was updated to include BC Hydro’s response to a follow-up question, which was received after publication.

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