Site C dam report leaves tough decision up to ministers

Site C dam report leaves tough decision up to ministers
A third dam on the Peace river will have “no measurable impact” on the Peace-Athabasca Delta, above, according to the panel responsible for reviewing Site C.Photo: J. Henry Fair.

While the benefits of going forward with BC Hydro’s proposed Site C dam are “clear,” the ministers responsible for making the final call have a long list of serious adverse impacts to consider before approving the project, says the panel charged with reviewing the $7.9-billion hydro project on the Peace River.

The panel’s final report following a two-and-a-half year environmental impact review process was made public last Thursday after being handed over to the provincial and federal governments the week previous.

In the 450-page report that gives attempts to find a “middle ground” within the polarized debate for and against, the joint review panel makes 50 recommendations to the crown corporation designed to mitigate a suite of adverse impacts on the environment, communities and Aboriginal culture, while noting that many of the adverse impacts are unmitigable and situated within the context of an increasingly exploited region of the country.

“The Peace River region has been and is currently undergoing enormous stress from resource development. In this context, the Panel has determined that the Project, combined with past, present and reasonably foreseeable future projects would result in significant cumulative effects on fish, vegetation and ecological communities, wildlife, current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes, and heritage. In some cases, these effects are already significant, even without the Project,” states the summary by panel members Harry Swain, Jocelyne Beaudet and James Mattison.

Despite the considerable and irremediable impacts, the report struggles to find an alternative.

“The benefits are clear. Despite high initial costs, and some uncertainty about when the power would be needed, the Project would provide a large and long-term increment of firm energy and capacity at a price that would benefit future generations. It would do this in a way that would produce a vastly smaller burden of greenhouse gases than any alternative save nuclear power, which B.C. has prohibited,” states the summary.

Apart from providing a renewable, low-carbon energy source, the project will also provide a number of local, regional and Aboriginal economic benefits, the report states.

The provincial and federal governments have six months to make a decision on whether or not to approve the project.

‘No impacts to Peace-Athabasca Delta’

While a great deal of concern was voiced during the hearings by people living in the Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD) region of northern Alberta about the impacts of further flow regulation on the Peace River, which already plays host to two existing hydro mega-projects, the review panel says Site C will “have no measurable effect” on the people or ecosystem.

“The Panel concludes there would be no effects from the Project on any aspect of the environment in the Peace Athabasca Delta, and a cumulative effects assessment on the PAD is not required,” states the report.

During hearings earlier this year, representatives from northern Alberta First Nations and Wood Buffalo National Park expressed concern that the sensitive delta ecosystem is already feeling the impacts of upstream hydro development, which has reduced ice-jam flooding, thereby changing the landscape, contributing to the disappearance of certain wildlife and impacting treaty and Aboriginal rights.

Although the panel said it is “not deaf to the importance of the PAD and the changes that are happening to it” as a result of flow regulation on the Peace River, it notes that hydro is only one of many culprits, including climate change and water withdrawals from the Athabasca River, impacting the area, and that the project is too far away to have a major impact.

“The Panel notes that the changes to the PAD that were reported to the Panel are happening now without the Project. In addition, the PAD is 1,100 km downstream of Site C. While the majority of flow regulation on the Peace River is due to the operation of the Bennett Dam, the additional regulation provided by the Project would be attenuated before reaching the PAD,” the panel said.

The panel agreed with BC Hydro’s study results showing that the downstream extent of Site C’s influence on the river ice thickness, break-up or freeze-up water levels would reach a maximum of 500 km downstream.

The report urges BC Hydro, Parks Canada, the Alberta government and others in the region to discuss the value and costs associated with providing periodic pulses of water to create flooding in the delta with the hope of preserving or restoring its aquatic ecosystems.

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