On Tuesday, the province announced that it would invest upwards of $8.77 billion to build a third hydroelectric dam on the Peace River, this one approximately 7 km southwest of Fort St. John at Site C.
It will likely be the most expensive public infrastructure project in Canada currently underway.
The decision to go ahead with the project marks the first firm decision from the provincial government on the dam.
The revised construction start date is summer 2015 and is slated to end in 2024.
At the announcement in Victoria, Premier Christy Clark spoke of the benefits the dam would have for future generations of British Columbians.
“Today we're all here to talk about a decision that is going to make a real difference for 100 years in the future of our province for so many many people,” the premier said. “The Site C Clean Energy Project won't be built in a day and won't be built in a year, but once it is built, it will benefit British Columbians for generations.”
According to B.C. Hydro, if constructed the dam would produce 1,100 megawatts of energy for the province.
Blair Lekstrom, former MLA for Peace River South, has been in favour of Site C, and sees a big economic impact on Fort St. John.
"I think the business sector, obviously, the impact most directly felt will be Fort St. John, being right on their back door," he said. "I think this has been discussed for the better part of 30 years, and one way or the other a decision had to come."
“I know that there will be people that support this decision, and those who have made their voice heard all along that don't support it," the former MLA added.
In a closed media session, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said the question "what's best for the ratepayer?" largely drove his decision. "The answer turned out to be the Site C project," he said. "It's clear that to keep rates low, we must choose the option of building Site C."
"We're proud to make this decision despite the fact that there's impacts to people in the northeast," Bennett said.
In information given to media, the government upped their capital estimate of the project from B.C. Hydro's $7.9 billion to about $8.335 billion. They also included an extra $440 million in their budget — bringing the total to $8.77 billion.
The decision, however, does not mean the dam will actually be built.
It still faces several legal challenges from First Nations and affected landowners, which claim to be negatively impacted by the dam.
One of those people impacted is Ken Boon, a farm owner whose property would be flooded if Site C goes ahead.
“We’re disappointed, and you know I can’t say that we’re totally surprised,” he said after the decision was made public. “It is extremely unfortunate that her government chose to rush into this decision.”
The dam’s merits and economics have split public opinion for years.
A B.C. Hydro commissioned poll said that 49 per cent support the dam without preset conditions, and that 30 per cent would support it “under certain circumstances.”
David Conway, a BC Hydro spokesman, said before the decision that “BC Hydro has conducted a thorough analysis of alternatives to meet electricity demand. (This analysis) found that Site C provides the best combination of financial, technical, environmental and economic development attributes compared to alternatives.”
Some business leaders and others have spoken in favour of the project going forward.
Others were opposed.
“The Site C Dam proposal on the Peace River would submerge what little is left of the Peace River Valley in Northeastern British
Columbia,” Fort Nelson First Nation Chief Liz Logan was quoted as saying earlier. “Many MPs outside of B.C. aren't aware of the devastating environmental consequences of this proposed third dam.”
Chief Norman Davis of Doig River First Nation said earlier that the valley that would be affected by Site C "is a unique spiritual place for our people to meaningfully exercise our Treaty rights. No amount of money could compensate us for the loss of this valley.”
Lawyer Rob Botterell expressed similar opinions. Botterell is acting as legal counsel to some landowners who would be affected by Site C.
“The need and economic case for Site C has not been made out,” he wrote.
Botterell called for more analysis of the project.
Jean Crowder, the Federal NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic, also questioned Site C and whether the government appropriately consulted First Nations.
“We are hearing lots of opposition across B.C. with regards to this project,” she said. “So I don’t know how governments respond to those kinds of concerns in a meaningful way. Others have remained guarded in their opinion.”
The project still has considerable hurdles it must overcome before shovels enter the ground next summer.
It faces legal challenges on both the federal and provincial levels.
Member nations of the Treaty 8 First Nations have asked for a judicial review of the assessment certificate that was issued to OK the project. If this review succeeds – and they can prove that governments did not have the authority to make this decision – then Site C can’t legally go ahead.
Part of what could form the basis of their legal challenge was a recommendation made by a joint review panel tasked with studying the problem. In their report, issued last May, the panel concluded that “the project is likely to cause a significant adverse effect on fishing opportunities and practices for the First Nations represented by Treaty 8 Tribal Association, Saulteau First Nations, and Blueberry River First Nations, and that these effects cannot be mitigated.”
The Peace Valley Landowners Association, a group of landowners that could be displaced if the project proceeds, also strongly oppose the massive project.