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More Site C commenters every day

Industry groups, former mayors, reverends and simple citizens - more than 80 people have registered so far to speak at the upcoming public hearings on the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam, which begin in Fort St. John on Dec. 9.

Industry groups, former mayors, reverends and simple citizens - more than 80 people have registered so far to speak at the upcoming public hearings on the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam, which begin in Fort St. John on Dec. 9.

As of Wednesday, about 60 people had also met the Nov. 25 deadline to file written submissions to the joint review panel undertaking the hearings, and who will advise the federal and provincial governments on whether or not to proceed with the project.

"We had no expectation. We have not been through a regulatory process like this to construct a facility," said Dave Conway, Hydro's community relations manager for Site C. "When we built our past facilities, there was no regulatory environmental process like this in place at the time. This is new for us, as it is for many people."

Hydro says it needs to build the $8 billion dam on the Peace River to meet a 40 per cent increase in electricity demand over the next 20 years.

According to documents filed to Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, industry groups that support building the dam include the New Car Dealers of British Columbia, who say extra hydro capacity is needed to accommodate an expected increase in the number of people who will be using electric-powered cars in the coming years.

Other industry groups that would benefit from the dam's construction have also filed letters of support, including the Cement Association of Canada and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies of BC (ACEC-BC).

"The construction and operation of Site C will not only create significant employment for engineers and construction workers while it is being built, but the provision of stable and dependable power will create employment opportunities throughout northern B.C., as the various resource-based projects proceed," ACEC-BC president and CEO Keith Sashaw wrote.

If Site C is approved, BC Hydro will build a 60-metre-high earth dam about seven kilometres south of Fort St. John, along with a 1,100-megawatt generating station. The dam's reservoir will extend about 80 kilometres to Hudson's Hope.

Some local residents and politicians argue building the dam will have irreversible impacts on the Peace River Valley, among them severe losses of Class 1 and 2 agricultural land, First Nations heritage sites, wildlife habitat and even businesses.

Gary Drinkall and Blaine Trenholm say they have been running a successful guide and outfitting business on the south side of the Peace River.

"With your project going forward, it will put us out of business in that area, not to mention our many camps also that will be destroyed," they wrote to the panel.

Farmers Arlene and Ken Boon were the first to formally register for the hearings. Arlene Boon said she's pleased with the response to the hearings so far, but she anticipates many more to register to speak.

"It's encouraging to see some people coming out of the woodwork who haven't been making much noise in the past," said Arlene Boon.

The Boons, whose family has farmed the fertile lands next to the Peace River since the 1940s, stand to lose about half their property if the project is approved.

"It's priceless to us. We can't be bought out when it's not for sale," said Arlene Boon.

Both Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman and Chetwynd Mayor Merlin Nichols are registered to speak, as is Senator Richard Neufeld.

The Peace River Regional District has yet to formally register; however, board chair Karen Goodings said the district will send a delegation to the hearings. Former Fort St. John Mayor Steve Thorlakson is scheduled to speak as well.

PRRD Director Arthur Hadland has filed two written submissions - one as a private citizen, and another as the director for Area C, which represents Charlie Lake, Old Fort and Grandhaven.

Hadland has a litany of concerns over Site C, including the compounding strains on police, medical and sewer services, the safety and stability of the earth-based dam, and the lack of oversight and approval from the B.C. Utilities Commission.

Hydro lacks the social license to proceed with the project, Hadland argued.

"Area C, if by some crazy accident they give it approval, it will be absolutely devastating for residents there," he said.

There is no registration deadline, but those interested in making a presentation to the panel are encouraged to register as soon as possible, panel spokeswoman Lucille Jamault said. It will be up to the panel to decide if they will allow walk-up registration, she said.

There are 26 hearing dates set, including meetings in Dawson Creek, Chetwynd, Hudson's Hope, Prince George and with a handful of First Nations.

The majority of the hearings, including all the discussions regarding technical issues, will be held in Fort St. John. The hearings are scheduled to conclude on Jan. 23.

-- with files from Peter James