Saying he and his colleagues made the decision “with a heavy heart,” Premier John Horgan announced his government will continue with the controversial Site C hydroelectric dam project. Calling it a difficult issue, Horgan said he has listened to people from all walks of life — those who will be impacted and those working to build the dam in northeast B.C., among others — and knows it will have profound impacts on all of them.
“It’s clear that Site C should never have been started,” Horgan said. “But to cancel it would add billions to the province’s debt, putting at risk our ability to deliver housing, child care, schools and hospitals for families across B.C. And that’s a price we’re not willing to pay.”
He condemned the previous B.C. Liberal government for ignoring concerns being raised and “getting a project past a point of no return.”
Horgan said he respects the viewpoints of those who will be unhappy the government will move forward with the $10.76-billion project.
“I and my colleagues have to accept the situation as we find it, not as how we would wish it would be,” he said, noting it’s not the project the NDP would have favoured or started, but it is one that must be seen through to completion.
Horgan said sale of electricity produced when the dam is operating will provide revenue to offset construction costs. Cost of the dam is a driving force behind the government’s decision. Horgan said had the government cancelled it, the $4 billion already spent would have “hit either Hydro of the Ministry of Finance and it could have meant a 12 per cent [hydro rate] increase” or not being able to fund needed infrastructures in communities.
“We couldn’t do that,” he said of absorbing the $4-billion debt. “We need to get out of this. We need to move forward.”
Reaction to the announcement was swift. Even before the press conference, B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver was suggesting a recall campaign should begin against Energy Minister Michelle Mungall who, before she took on the portfolio, had been critical of the Site C dam project. The Green party started its campaign on the weekend, with Weaver asking the public to write the premier, telling him to oppose the dam.
Immediately after the announcement, Sierra Club BC called it “a dark day” and accused the government of betraying “First Nations and all those who voted in hope of stopping Site C.” Sierra Club BC president Galen Armstrong said “history will not look kindly on this decision.
“While the blame must be shared with the previous government, which recklessly proceeded without a proper review, this government has now assumed responsibility for the harsh environmental and social impacts to come.” Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar, however, praised the decision and said it is his Opposition B.C. Liberal Party’s party’s job now “to keep an eye on government and make sure [the project] stays on time and on budget.”
Milobar said the review Horgan’s government undertook since taking office “slowed it [the project] down and added to the cost.”
While agreeing with the decision, Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone (B.C. Liberal) called on the NDP to apologize to taxpayers and families who depend on the Site C project.
“This after Horgan’s politically motivated delays and game playing have added potentially billions of dollars to the project’s budget, not to mention the unnecessary angst caused to workers and their families,” Stone said. The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association also welcomed the news, calling the review process unnecessary politicking to “create uncertainty and confusion that put this clean-energy project and the thousands of jobs it supports at risk for no reason.”
Horgan also announced: • Creation of a project- assurance board to provide enhanced oversight to future contract- procurement and management, project deliverables, environmental integrity and quality assurance, all within the mandate of delivering the project on time and budget. Based on current projections, BC Hydro has revised the budget to $10.7 billion; • Establishment of new community-benefits programs, mandated with making sure project benefits assist local communities and increasing the number of apprentices and First Nations workers hired onto the project; • Creation of a food-security fund — based on Site C revenues — dedicated to supporting farming and enhancing agricultural innovation and productivity in the province.
Meanwhile, the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations say they will take the quest to stop the Site C dam construction to the courts. The two bands said they would seek a court injunction to stop construction and start a civil action alleging treaty infringement. A similar lawsuit the two First Nations filed was dismissed by the Federal Court of Appeal in January. The bands had argued flooding 5,500 hectares of the Peace River Valley infringed on their treaty rights. At that time, the bands argued the federal government should be deciding if the dam construction violated their treaty rights before issuing permits to let the work proceed.
Lawyers for the federal government and BC Hydro argued decisions on treaty rights can be decided by courts only, not by government cabinet members. The panel of judges agreed, writing cabinet “does not possess any expertise and is not equipped to determine contested questions of law and complex factual issues” on the impact on treaties. The ruling did not include anything on whether the dam’s construction violates treaty rights.