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The battle of Peace River

Site C Public Hearings: Day 15
William Stodalka Photo

The joint review panel heard arguments about Site C on Friday and Saturday in Peace River. A joint review panel hearing was held in Peace River at the Sawbridge Inn on Friday and Saturday to discuss the proposed Site C dam and its effects on downstream users.

Peace River, Alta., is a town that's literally divided, which despite its name made it a fitting for the "war" that recently took place there.

There are two parts to Peace River – the western part, and the more densely packed "downtown" part, separated by the bridge across the river the town gets its name from.

In the ballroom of the Sawbridge Inn in downtown Peace River, two conflicted sides met in battle over a project that could cost $8 billion dollars, the Site C hydroelectric dam.

To many of those in the room, there were people who were fighting to return to a time before the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, when the muskrats were plentiful to hunt and their farms could be refilled by a cleansing flow of water.

On the other hand, there were people who wanted to put forward a dam that they felt would be the best way to make that people could plug in and have power without too many zeros on their electric bill. To them, recreating natural reality was just not realistic.

While the dam will be built near Fort St. John, people hundreds of kilometres downstream of the dam were worried about Site C's effects.

On Saturday, representatives of four First Nations – the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Deninu Kue First Nation, the Little Red River Cree Nation, and the Mikisew Cree First Nation – took the time to speak to the joint review panel.

These First Nations rely on the health of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, an area of northeastern Alberta that is the third largest freshwater delta in the world spanning hundreds of kilometres.

Much of their discussion was focused on what hunting was like before the creation of the Bennett Dam, an issue which they felt should be addressed by the panel reviewing this new dam.

In the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation case, their reserve is surrounded by water, which means historically and in the present, ACFN members need to hunt for sustenance.

"For us to go shopping, (getting to) major stores is pretty much next to impossible for eight months of the year, so all of our shopping is done out here for our fish and meat."

According to Greg Marcel, hunting and fishing used to make up 80 or 90 per cent of ACFN member's diets.

Other First Nations representative felt similarly.

"Everything was alive and plentiful back then ... it was being replenished through floods," Matthew Lepine, an MCFN member, told the panel. "It created ice jams that created the floods that replenished the delta."

"I was happy to live out on the bush," said Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille. "It was good times. We were able to travel anywhere we wanted to."

Now, according to Marcel, conditions have changed.

"There's nowhere near as much fish as there used to be," he said. "There's not enough water for the fish to spawn there."

As for the birds, Fred Marcel said that where they could once count on catching 30 to 40 birds, now they could only get 10.

And Greg Marcel said that hunting and fishing would now just barely make up half of their diet.

"The weather's been changing, must be back in the 1970s maybe" he said.

Another ACFN elder, Charlie Voyager, told the panel that he has seen the Peace-Athabasca Delta dried up since the Bennett Dam was built.

"The first time BC Hydro came to Fort Chip, they said, 'When we close our dams, within four years your water'll be back to normal. 40 years went by, and the water never came back," Voyager told the panel. "That's what we're afraid of, if you put Site C in there. How long will it be before we get some of our water back?"

Courtoreille said that free travel he experienced earlier is no longer possible.

"If we were to take our elders that are still alive out into the land, they would be lost," he said. "They wouldn't recognize the place."

A map provided by Parks Canada seemed to back that up, showing a great deal of drying up happening between to the area since 1998.

The First Nations made it clear that Site C was not for them.

George Martin, an MCFN member, told the panel in Cree that "if we build a dam, there will be no life."

Melody Lepine, the director of government and industry relations for the Mikisew, told the panel that BC Hydro has "destroyed the delta and they will continue to destroy the delta with Site C."

Site C would cripple their Treaty Rights, she added.

"We really have nothing to gain," Lepine added. "Were not even the recipients of the electricity. We're downstream and we're forgotten."

"It's not that we're against development, but that it's done right, and that the Mikisew Cree First Nations not be ignored," Chief Steve Courtoreille also told the panel.

However, while many of the First Nations speakers felt that the Bennett Dam was to blame for the effects on the Peace-Athabasca Delta, a Queen's University professor had another explanation.

Dr. John Smol is a paleoliminology expert. In a nutshell, his science examines dirt at the bottom of river and lakes to determine historical records of changes within water systems.

(Smol has studied Albertan lakes before, and was part of a study that showed that oilsands development in Alberta has helped put toxic carcinogens in remote Albertan lakes.)

He agreed that changes and drying up were happening on the Peace-Athabasca Delta. However, according to his research, these changes were not the result of the regulation of the river caused by the Bennett Dam.

"The delta is undergoing a long-term drying trend whose onset precedes Peace River regulation by many decades," he told the panel. "I would expect to see some change or increase at 1968 or post 1968 (when the Bennett Dam was completed), we just simply do not see that."

At the meeting, joint review panel Chairman Harry Swain asked the audience whether or not anyone wanted to question this "important" conclusion.

Jim Webb, a policy advisor for the Little Red River Cree Nation, asked Smol if his evidence could speak to a difference in the record if the Bennett Dam had not been constructed.

According to Smol, this was basically disproved by other lakes within the delta that weren't connected to the Peace River that were experiencing similar types of drying effects.

But other scientists can come up with different conclusion. Steve Oates of Environment Canada later told the panel that there is published scientific literature that said the Bennett Dam has negatively affected the Peace-Athabasca Delta within the Wood Buffalo National Park.

However, the effects of the Bennett Dam were not the only matters that were discussed before the panel.

Many of the people who spoke before the panel said that BC Hydro's information about the environmental impact the project had was missing information that was needed to present a full picture of the project's impact.

Martin Carver, a scientist hired by MCFN and ACFN, told the panel that the dam "will cause decline in (the delta's) hydrologic recharge."

In their written response to similar concerns written by Carver, BC Hydro said that "The report doesn't mention the high lake levels ... in the summer of 2013 that occurred primarily as a result of very high Athabasca River flows in May and June."

He also said that the dam's effects would grow as climate change goes on, and pointed to a report by University of Waterloo professor Kabir Rasouli stating that Lake Athabasca, which is fed in part by the Peace River, is expected to go down by two to three metres by 2100.

Walter Andreeff, a scientist working for the Peace River Environmental Society, told them that the spatial boundaries of the study should be widened, as flow alteration with Site C at the Peace River was "not insignificant."

Other panellists also asked for the boundaries to be widened.

Deninu Kue First Nation representatives told the panel that they were concerned that the Slave River Watershed was included from the environmental impact statement.

BC Hydro, however stood by the spatial boundaries they choose to examine, as they felt that for both surface water and ice water regime, Site C's influence "would not extend" to the point that others in the panel felt they would.

"The influence of Site C ... is negligible on that downstream boundary,"

Andreeff also wanted further study on whether a land formation that would be affected by Site C could lead to the release of uranium into the water.

According to John Nunn, an expert called upon by BC Hydro, the bedrock levels for that particular stretch were less than the coastal average.

BC Hydro also failed to study the project in comparison with all the cumulative stresses and factors of the Peace River, according to some of the panellists.

"Assessing the incremental effects of the Site C project may not fully evaluate the operational phase of the project from a cumulative effects assessment prospective," Parks Canada told the panel.

Many of the First Nations also said they were dissatisfied with the consultation process and the review process in general for Site C.

"We were told by BC Hydro that they would agree to disagree rather than make attempts that were real and of substance that would deal with those processes," Doreen Somers of the ACFN told the panel. "The process was nothing more than a show."

Others asked about whether or not the project would take into account the extreme variability of climate change expected to happen in the future.

"We were advised there's a high variability in what the climate projections indicated," Dave Andres said. "We chose somewhere in the middle based on expert advice."

Ken Boon, an anti-Site C advocate, also said that BC Hydro "seems to have grandfathered in" the effects of the Bennett Dam.

A variety of speakers asked for mitigation measures should the project go through.

Carver asked for a multidisciplinary technical team to develop and test strategies to bolster recharge for the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

Environment Canada recommended that a multi-stakeholder team be brought out to discuss the impact on downstream users. But BC Hydro said that existing forums were already in place.

Siobhan Jackson of BC Hydro said that BC Hydro would consider through inter-provincial discussions between B.C. and Alberta "a proposal from the government of alberta to test of flow augmentation to influence ice jams on flooding. The province of Alberta would therefore decide which groups they would be for this to be made."

However, she said that Site C "simply has nothing to do with this issue."

Stanley Beck of the Deninu Kue First Nation asked that BC Hydro "let nature look after this river again, not man."

Renata Kurschner, Hydro's director of resource generation management of BC Hydro, said that if BC Hydro were to recreate the river's natural flow, there would be "environmental impacts, physical infrastructure, and there are financial impacts."

"If you take the reduced energy that we would get by passing the inflows as natural, we would lose 8,000 (gigawatt hours) give or take on an annual basis," she told the panel. "This is the low end, and that' s not really realistic. At about $78 per megawatt hour, which I would take $100 per hour (based on other factors), we are looking at $600 million per year. We're looking at a 20 per cent rate increase."

This scenario would not include replacing 8,000 gigawatt hours of energy. To recreate those lost gigawatt hours could be $2 billion per year, or a 70 per cent increase.

"The financial impact is staggering."

Boon said that while he didn't want to totally recreate natural flows, he suggested computer modelling to see what BC Hydro could do to help the Peace-Athabasca Delta in times where it doesn't flow.

"You wait for the ice to clear the Peace River and do them at the right times," he said. "I'm sure there are ways to do these things that would help that Delta, not to get it the way it was, but to benefit it."



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