Local residents and not-for-profit groups who have questions about the proposed Site C dam are disappointed in the low amount of funding available for public participation in the environmental assessment process that will take place over the next few years.
Though it was made public that only $140,000 would be available for public participation funding with the announcement of the joint environmental assessment process, groups applying for the funding have very recently found out that each group will be able to apply for a maximum of $19,000.
Groups such as the Peace Valley Environmental Association (PVEA), Sierra Club BC and the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative say that simply isn't enough to participate meaningfully.
"Effective participation requires hiring experts who can review BC Hydro's studies and hold them accountable," said Andrea Morison, Coordinator for PVEA. "$19,000 for a group to present on a few priority areas just doesn't cut it."
Morison said that the group would like to hire several subject matter experts who would be able to conduct analysis and critiques and prepare reports that examine the questions they have about the project. Additionally, they need these experts to travel to the area to present at hearings on their behalf.
"Realistically, considering we're a not-for-profit group and I'm the only paid person with the group who has to coordinate this work along with all the other things I have to do, we would be looking at a few hundred thousand dollars," said Morison.
"An effective and fair environmental assessment requires that federal and provincial decisions-makers hear both BC Hydro's experts as well as experts with alternative opinions," said Wendy Francis, Program Director for Y2Y Conservation Initiative, an organization that is concerned about the impacts that this dam could have on the ability of large mammals to move through the region.
Morison agreed and said with such a small amount of funding available, the deck is stacked against citizens who questions the Site C Dam.
"With such a paltry sum available to non-profit groups wanting to participate, the evidence presented to the panel will hugely favor BC Hydro's case," said Francis.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency disagreed and pointed out that it is not BC Hydro that is conducting this assessment and that they will not be presenting the findings. The assessment process is a joint review by the provincial and federal governments, and all findings will be prepared and reported by them.
Josh Paterson, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law in Vancouver, is also concerned by the low amount of funding available. Though his group does not intend to apply for funding or benefit from it in any way, he said that it is important that the Site C assessment be fair and transparent.
"It's really, we think, an unreasonably low amount of funding when you consider that this is going to be a multi-year series of hearings with all kinds of very detailed and complex evidence that's really impossible for any regular person to understand without needing assistance," said Paterson.
Paterson pointed out that the assessment will result in tens of thousands of pages of technical data that the groups who wish to participate will need to review. In order to do this, they will need an expert who can grapple with the information as presented and build arguments or responses.
"If a group who has questions about the proposals being made by BC Hydro wants to hire an expert, that can cost $15,000 right there in some cases," said Paterson. "Just like it costs money for BC Hydro to propose things, it costs money for community members to participate and this just isn't enough."
Francis also pointed out that just having their organization travel to Fort St. John for a hearing would eat up much of the $19,000 in funding available to them.
Paterson explained that this study seems particularly low compared to other assessment projects that have happened recently.
He points out a storage facility for Nuclear Waste in Ontario that had $175,000 available in the second phase of the project for just review and comment on the application of the environmental impact statement. It was split among seven groups for an average of $25,000 per group. However, one group received over $60,000 to complete their work, and the scope of the work was much less complex than what will need to happen for the Site C assessment process.
"I don't suggest that other environmental assessments have adequate funding - the amount of funding across the board is lower than it should be," said Paterson. "But the amounts for Site C really stand out as inadequate. Compare the $24,000 to simply review the draft guidelines, where here it's $3,000"
Annie Roy, Communications Manager with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said that the amount of funding available is adequate for its purpose.
"The participants funding program is a limited financial contribution that is meant to encourage people to participate. It's not meant to cover all expenses," said Roy.
Roy said given the large amount of projects and applicants they have each year and the limited resources of the agency, they have to put a limitation on the maximum amount of funding allocations available.
"It's standardized across Canada. The way we determine the level of public funding available is based on the location of the project, the size of the project, based on this history and more. The agency then uses this formula to determine the amount available," said Roy.
With this formula, the cap varies from $17,800 to $32,000 per group depending on the project.
According to Roy, the fund available for public participation is there to encourage people to get involved and based on their history and experience, this amount is what they determined would allow people to participate.
BC Hydro did not provide comment on the funding cap because the assessment process is not being completed by them and they are not involved in the public participation funding.
However, groups who require the funding say that it's not enough given the scope of the project.
"They've spent tens of millions of dollars in Stage One and Two of this process and they are able to hire subject matter experts to prepare all their reports," said Morison.
"There's $140,000 in funding available in total on a $8 billion project that is going to affect two provinces, plus the Northwest Territories," said Paterson. "There's no way that this funding is enough to allow the diverse range of impacted farmers, ranchers, local grassroots groups and residents to participate meaningfully in this review."
Morison said that even if some of the groups combined their funding, it would not be nearly enough to represent the different interests of the diverse range of groups.
Roy pointed out that this is not the only funding available - the $140,000 is the funding available to non-Aboriginal groups.
The Aboriginal funding envelope of the participant funding program is meant to provide Aboriginal groups with support to provide their input on the environmental assessment and encourage their engagement in consultation activities with the Federal government.
According to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, approximately 50 Aboriginal groups have been identified as groups that may be impacted by the project.
The amount of the funding available to Aboriginal groups who wish to participate is $850,000.
For groups who would like to apply for funding, applications are open until Dec. 7 and can be found at www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca.