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The Site C dam has become a major issue in the provincial election.

Justine Hunter/The Globe and Mail

Dozens of articulated dump trucks rolled down a rough dirt road alongside the Peace River Tuesday, moving some of the eight million cubic metres of dirt that must be dug to get down to bedrock that will anchor the south end of the Site C dam and the power station.

An NDP government, said a campaigning Liberal Leader Christy Clark, would "hand everyone a pink slip" by killing the $8.8-billion dam.

But the project, NDP Leader John Horgan argued, has been a boon for workers "coming from somewhere else, not British Columbia." An NDP government would refer Site C to the B.C. Utilities Commission for an assessment and Mr. Horgan refused to say if the megaproject is too far advanced in construction to be halted.

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The project and how to proceed is among the starkest differences between the visions of both major party leaders as the election campaign enters its second week. The Green Party has said it would kill the project if given a chance.

The Liberals have sought to turn Site C into a wider allegory of their openness to resource jobs, contrary to an NDP that the Liberals say is dismissive of large-scale projects such as the dam and LNG growth. Mr. Horgan has argued his platform includes a five-year plan to create jobs by building capital projects such as schools, hospitals and rapid transit.

Both major party leaders turned up at campaign events Tuesday wearing hard hats.

Ms. Clark visited a cement plant in Fort St. John to promote the BC Hydro project that currently has about 2,000 workers on the payroll. She said only her party would complete the dam.

"If it's the NDP, it would be dead. If it's the Greens, it would be deader."

Construction began two years ago and Ms. Clark had vowed to get the project "past the point of no return" before the election. However, during her campaign visit to the province's northeast, the Liberal Leader warned it was still possible for a future government to kill the project.

Indeed, a UBC academic paper to be released Wednesday suggested the entire project should at least be put on hold on the grounds that it is providing expensive energy that isn't needed. The paper, written in part by two environmental consultants and produced by the school's Program on Water Governance, calls the business case for Site C "uneconomic."

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Said Mr. Horgan on Tuesday: "The only people who have said this is a good idea are Liberals."

BC Hydro's construction manager, Bob Peevers, told reporters during a tour of the site on Tuesday that the project is "absolutely" past the point of no return.

As of the end of 2016, the most recent figures available, Crown-owned BC Hydro had spent $1.5-billion on the project, with another $2.5-billion locked into contracts.

In addition to the money that has been spent, the landscape has already been dramatically altered.

Already, 980 hectares of land have been cleared and eight million cubic metres of dirt have been moved.

Construction is expected to peak in 2020, with the dam to be in service by 2024. But Mr. Horgan noted that Site C has no agreement in place to ensure that British Columbians get jobs on the project, suggesting that would not be the case with the capital projects plan.

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The BC Liberal government approved the project without a regulatory review, saying it is needed to meet the province's future energy needs.

But critics say the megaproject is not the best way to meet those electricity needs.

Local First Nations have been among the fiercest critics of Site C because they say the valley that will eventually be flooded is an important part of their traditional territories.

Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations said Tuesday that in addition to the flooding, BC Hydro has refused to listen to appeals to avoid an ancient grave site and a traditional gathering site in its road construction plans.

Chief Willson said the Crown corporation has mapped out an alternate route, but will not change its plans to pave over the grave.

"They are being bullies on this," he said in an interview. "They know full well there is a grave site there and we have presented solutions to them, but they have balked at everything."

Ms. Clark, who last fall made a reconciliation visit to the Cheslatta First Nation, whose graveyard and village was flooded to make way for the Kenney Dam in 1952, told reporters she would leave BC Hydro to resolve the issue.

"A huge majority of First Nations in the region are supportive of Site C because of the jobs it would bring," she told reporters in Fort St. John.

A Hydro official said Highway 29 will be realigned along the shore because it is the safest route for the travelling public, and will have fewer technical challenges. Hydro also insists that no grave has been identified – a point that is disputed by the local First Nations.

During her tour of the Inland Concrete facility, Ms. Clark was cheered by workers as she defended the project and said urban voters have to understand the need for resource development in B.C.

"The closer you are to a resource-based economy, the closer you are to understanding how important it is we get to 'yes' on resources and building infrastructure," she said.

"We do need to do a lot of work to bridge that rural-urban divide. People in Vancouver need to know that they live in the most logging-dependent community anywhere in the province."

Video: BC NDP leader promises to address lack of family doctors (The Canadian Press)
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About the Authors
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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