An environmental group is questioning the process under which the federal government has approved a controversial hydroelectric project on northern Vancouver Island.
Notice that the Kokish River power project had been approved was posted on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency website late Wednesday – but that was a week after a construction company had already advertised in the Campbell River Mirror for workers to help build the facility.
In the ad, the construction firm, Kiewit, sought mechanics, surveyors, carpenters and other workers for "a project in the upcoming months in the Port Hardy area."
Zev Korman, director of investor relations for Brookfield Energy Group, confirmed in an e-mail that the ad was for the Kokish project, but he said the company had not been told in advance about approval, as the Wilderness Committee claims.
"In taking out the advertisement, the project contractors were being prudent in their planning so that – subject to receiving approval – the project could move forward in a timely manner with local resources and maximize employment opportunities for local workers," Mr. Korman stated. "I want to be clear that neither we nor our partners had knowledge of the project's approval when this ad was placed, as the Wilderness Committee has asserted."
But Gwen Barlee, a policy director with the Wilderness Committee, said it appears the company knew it was getting approval from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the key federal agency reviewing environmental impact.
"The optics on this look really poor," she said. "I am not sure who is in charge when you have a construction firm informing the public before DFO has even issued its approval."
Ms. Barlee said the project shouldn't have been approved because it will have a negative impact on salmon stocks.
"This is a political decision, made in Ottawa, where they don't have any idea how important salmon rivers are," she said.
Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch, said fish biologists who have studied the river agree the diversion of water into a pipeline, to power generators, will harm salmon and steelhead habitat.
"The threat in the Kokish is you are really altering the flows in ways that we don't fully understand," he said. "There will be less water for the fish and it will be almost impossible to mitigate."
The Kokish project, which is controversial because the river has significant salmon and steelhead runs, is being jointly pursued by Brookfield Energy Group and the 'Namgis First Nation, through an entity called Kwagis Power Ltd. Partnership.
Bill Cranmer, chief of the 'Namgis First Nation, said he thinks the hydro project and salmon can co-exist.
"Those fish are important to us," he said, promising the river will be managed in a way that doesn't damage salmon or steelhead runs.
An environmental screening report prepared by DFO and Transport Canada says habitat lost in the river can be replaced by restored habitat in the estuary, and that a fish ladder will allow salmon to get upstream to spawn, while a screen will keep juvenile fish migrating downstream from being sucked into the intake pipe.
The document also sets water flow levels that must be maintained in the river throughout the year.
In a statement on Thursday, the DFO said that "with the implementation of strong water flow requirements, other mitigation measures, habitat compensation and monitoring, the Kokish River power project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects."
Opposition to the Kokish River project gained a high profile ally in December when Willie Mitchell, a player with the Los Angeles Kings, called on the government to reject the proposal.
Mr. Mitchell, who couldn't be reached for comment, was featured in full-page newspaper ads saying: "I grew up fishing with my dad on the Kokish River and I want my kids and future generations to enjoy the same opportunities I did."