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Site C project still faces major obstacles after B.C. approval

Premier Christy Clark speaks about the approval of the Site C hydroelectric dam project during a news conference at the Legislative Library in Victoria on Dec. 16, 2014.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

The Site C dam has cleared a major obstacle by getting the B.C. government's approval, but several barriers such as court cases and cost hikes still lie ahead for Canada's largest current infrastructure project.

Site C is projected to flood 55 square kilometres in the Peace River valley, disrupting fishing, hunting, trapping and sacred native sites. At least six challenges are now in the courts aimed at stopping Site C – and more are coming.

Werner Antweiler, an energy economics professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, said the legal landscape for megaprojects is shifting, especially when First Nations' rights are threatened.

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"We will see the courts setting new precedents on how such projects go forward," Prof. Antweiler said Tuesday in an interview, soon after B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced the $8.8-billion project would proceed.

Lawyer Rob Botterell promised continued legal efforts on behalf of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, representing about 60 landowners, and Treaty 8 Tribal Association if the project proceeds.

"I don't think the [government] timetable is clear-cut at all. What we're looking for is for the government to hold off on construction while these court cases are being dealt with," Mr. Botterell said in an interview.

He said the soonest he expects any sort of legal clarity on the issues around Site C would be late 2015 – but the B.C. government is hoping construction will begin next summer.

"I don't think the era of megaprojects is over, but there's a high standard to meet, particularly on impacts to First Nations, to justify them," Mr. Botterell said.

"I think the future is in smaller-scale projects with a smaller footprint."

Prof. Antweiler said the costs of the project are going to go up as the courts work through the issues, a critical concern given the multibillion-dollar cost of Site C.

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He noted that Site C has already increased in projected cost from $7.9-billion to $8.8-billion with more hikes likely if the project is delayed.

Worse, he said, it's hard to adjust a project of such scale to deal with costs. "As the decision is now made, there is no easy going back."

John Horgan, the B.C. NDP Leader, said legal challenges by First Nations communities are going to be insurmountable.

"They still have unresolved issues with First Nations," Mr. Horgan said in an interview. "They're not frills. It isn't, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could deal with this?'"

Mr. Horgan said the concerns are constitutional. "They're not insignificant. Therefore, I believe we're a long way from getting a spade in the ground."

Mr. Horgan said Site C should be subject to a review by the B.C. Utilities Commission with BC Hydro submitting an alternative plan to Site C for consideration.

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"Go to the commission, not just with a review of this project about the cost, about the timing, about what the consequences will be over time, but let's look at alternatives as well."

A report from a joint review panel released Thursday urged provincial and federal governments to consider 50 recommendations if they decide to proceed with the Site C hydroelectric megaproject on the Peace River in northern B.C.

Still, it will take several more months for the final decision to be made. Do you support the project? Cast your vote below or click here.

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About the Author
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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