Are you curious to know the results of our Freedom of Information request for an updated budget and timeline for the $8.8 billion Site C dam project on B.C.’s Peace River?
So are we.
We were told by former energy minister Bill Bennett’s office that we would have the information on May 30, three weeks after the provincial election and nine months after we filed our request.
But then we received an e-mail from the ministry on May 24, advising us that the deadline had been extended by 45 business days. It had become apparent upon reviewing 880 pages of relevant records, said the e-mail from a government FOI specialist, “that an external consultation is required with BC Hydro.”
“This consult is essential and necessary to ensure that you receive as many records as possible, as they have authored a significant portion of the records,” stated the email. “It is therefore imperative to obtain their input to enable the disclosure of potentially harmful information.”
Now that got our attention.
The note from the energy ministry said there must also be a mandatory consultation with the Office of the Premier, as “the records touch on potentially sensitive information that may reveal Cabinet deliberations and confidences.”
That got our attention too.
But we’ll have to wait for the new deadline of August 2 — almost a year after our Freedom of Information (FOI) request was filed — to sate our curiousity, a delay that Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, calls “disturbing.”
“This sounds like a public body that does not want this information to come out and they are prepared to do whatever it takes to delay this,” Gogolek told DeSmog Canada. Even worse, Gogolek said, it appears that the government has purposefully “frustrated a request and there is no sanction on them.”
“They have a duty to assist,” said Gogolek. “If you have a situation where a public body is actually getting in the way of the release of information…[and] they are actually throwing up roadblocks…there should be a penalty for that.”
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) July 24, 2017
DeSmog Canada asked in the FOI for all e-mails, attachments and documents exchanged between the ministry and BC Hydro regarding Site C and project planning, including Site C’s most recent budget and timeline.
We also asked for all e-mails and documents exchanged between the ministry and BC Hydro regarding Site C’s job creation figures.
Former premier Christy Clark promised 10,000 construction jobs when Site C was green-lighted in December 2014.
Since then, both Clark and BC Hydro have seized every opportunity to broadcast the number of jobs created by Site C. You could be forgiven for thinking that Site C’s primary purpose was to generate jobs instead of electricity.
But here’s the thing. Of the 2,200 Site C jobs that Clark repeatedly brandished during the election campaign as a compelling reason to push Site C “past the point of no return,” 400 of those positions were filled by consultants and BC Hydro employees. And some of the remaining 1,800 jobs were not construction jobs, according to BC Hydro’s own April Site C jobs tally that was used by Clark.
Even more to the point, the government has never told B.C. voters and hydro customers what, exactly, constitutes a Site C job.
If someone is flown in to work on the project for two shifts does that count as a job? If local First Nations members are given staggered short-term contracts to accompany contractors in the field, does each short-term contract count as one job and one aboriginal person employed — even if it’s the same person over again?
And if a Site C worker is let go right before their probation period ends, and someone else is hired to replace them, does that count as one job or two?
We’re hoping the FOI response will provide answers to these questions and another very important one. With costs having skyrocketed far over budget at Canada’s other two major hydro dam projects currently under construction, where exactly do we sit on expenditures to date for the Site C $8.8 billion project — the most expensive publicly funded project in B.C.’s history?
On a more promising front, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. has confirmed that, even though it was unusual for the B.C. government to change the file number and date on our FOI request (the date was changed from August 2016 to March 2017), it will not affect the final due date of August 2.
That date was established after we appealed three times to the office (also known as the OIPC) for assistance. The clock stops on a FOI file while the OIPC investigates a complaint, and there’s a long line-up at the busy office these days.
It took six months after we filed a complaint for OPIC investigators to determine that the government could not charge us $840 for delivering our FOI. That sum was reduced from the original $990 fee after we substantially narrowed the scope of our original request.
In some cases, determining whether or not a fee should be waived — it can legally be waived if the FOI is deemed to be in the public interest — can take an entire year, depending on the OPIC backlog.
As we inch a little closer to the Site C looking glass we are, in the words of Louis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “curiouser and curiouser.”
Image: Vicky Husband