Despite having no formal position on whether it is for or against the project, the Peace River Regional District has proposed spending $200,000 over the next two years to participate in the Environmental Assessment review process for the controversial Site C Dam project.
The regional district's board of directors remains split on the project, with individual directors indicating their support or opposition to the project, and the District of Hudson's Hope being the only member community to adopt an official position, which is against the project.
However, board chair Karen Goodings, who has been appointed by the board to represent them during the public hearings on the project, said no matter where individuals or communities stand on the project, it is in everyone's best interest to make sure the information submitted by BC Hydro is thoroughly vetted and that all the potential impacts of the project are considered.
"We need to be very sure that if Site C goes ahead, this region receives what it needs to work with that," said Goodings. "It is a case of being prepared."
"I will just be asking questions, more than anything, to receive the clarity that the Environmental Assessment process is looking at all of the issues," she added when asked how she will approach the hearing process.
She said the provincial government's removal of the oversight of the BC Utilities Commission on the project underlies the importance of making sure BC Hydro's information is thoroughly examined.
In spite of the board's intention to remain neutral on the project, Goodings said one of the issues she will bring up that is not being considered by BC Hydro is the potential of natural gas co-generation as an alternative to the power generated by building a large dam.
"They [BC Hydro] are not bringing that forward and they will not bring that forward because it is not something they have control of," she said.
"It behooves the rest of us to make sure the Environmental Assessment process recognizes that there may be other alternatives to building a dam, so that's our responsibility, to take that forward."
The natural gas option was off the table with the provincial government's introduction of the Clean Energy Act in 2010, which stipulated that all new sources of power had to be from non-emitting sources, but the government has since reversed its position in acknowledging that natural gas co-generation will be necessary to develop the province's liquefied natural gas industry.
The board has yet to adopt a terms of reference that will outline what concerns and information it will be looking to bring forward at the hearings, though chief administrative officer Fred Banham said that should be forthcoming shortly. The board will likely than seek outside expertise to research and compile the necessary information, as Goodings said the board itself lacks the expertise to do that work on its own for a project that has such a broad set of implications.
However, she said some of the issues she is likely to present include the downstream impacts to fish habitat and bank erosion along the Peace River, and whether the river valley's banks are geologically able to withstand the proposed flooding.
Both Goodings and Banham said the money identified in the regional district's budget to participate in the Site C review process is a best estimate of the cost, though the actual cost could be much less or more depending on the scope of the regional district's participation.
No dates for public hearings on the Site C project have been set as of yet. The next steps in the review process involve a public consultation this spring on the draft guidelines for the environmental impact statement (EIS) to be submitted by BC Hydro. Those guidelines will provide direction to BC Hydro and identify the information that will be required in the EIS.
The project is being assessed in an unprecedented joint review by the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the provincial Environmental Assessment Office, though review panel members have yet to be appointed.
The Site C Dam project consists of constructing and operating an earth-fill dam - 1,050 metres long and 60 metres high - and 1,100-megawatt hydroelectric generating station on the Peace River. The dam as proposed would involve the creation of an 83-kilometre-long reservoir, realignment of four sections of Highway 29, and two, 77-kilometre-long transmission lines along an existing right-of-way to connect Site C to the Peace Canyon Dam and generating station.