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Site C faces first volley in barrage of legal challenges

When his neighbours first talked about suing the provincial government to stop the Site C dam, Ross Peck had his doubts.

When his neighbours first talked about suing the provincial government to stop the Site C dam, Ross Peck had his doubts. 

"I must admit, when we made the decision to go this route, I was a little apprehensive," said Peck, who lives in the Peace River Valley. But after a morning of arguments in a Vancouver courtroom, those apprehensions washed away.

"It made me feel good," he said. "This is probably our last chance [to stop Site C], and I think it's very important we put forward our views." 

The first of seven lawsuits aimed at blocking Site C made its way before the B.C. Supreme Court Monday.

The lawsuit, filed by the Peace Valley Landowner Association (PVLA), centres around whether the B.C. government broke the law by ignoring recommendations from a Joint Review Panel created to study the $8.8 billion hydroelectric project. The provincial government approved the 1,100 megawatt dam in December.

The landowners argue the province ignored its own rules in approving Site C, brushing aside the Joint Review Panel's recommendation to send the project to the B.C. Utilities Commission for further study. The PVLA are asking the court to quash the environmental assessment certificate issued for the project last October. 

Peck and his wife Deborah live on around a thousand acres in the Peace River Valley, where they farm grain and raise livestock. Around a third of the land would be submerged if Site C moves forward, bringing the waterline up to his backyard. 

"So from having a natural vibrant river front we'd be facing an eroding cliff in front of our house," he said. 

Andrea Morison, coordinator of the Peace Valley Environmental Association, said the province backed itself into a corner by asking the review panel to consider the economic case for Site C, and then ignoring those recommendations.

"What [the PVLA are] saying is the ministers made an error of law by failing to consider key findings and recommendations of the Joint Review Panel about the uncertain economic effects of the project—the cost, the electricity cost in the future, the revenue requirements," she said.

"You can't be embarking on an $8.8 billion project, the biggest project in Canada, with no good business case," she added.  

Opening arguments in the case began Monday and are expected to continue through Wednesday. The PVLA have raised around $177,000 towards legal fees.

There are six other lawsuits aimed at stopping the dam (including a federal court challenge from the PVLA.)

The Prophet River First Nation, West Moberly First Nation, and McLeod Lake Indian Band launched a case against Site C in B.C. Supreme Court. That case is expected to have its first hearing Thursday.

The same three Aboriginal groups, along with the Doig River Band, filed a separate suit in federal court alleging that the dam would violate treaty rights. The Blueberry River First Nation's suit on the "cumulative impacts" of industrial development in the Peace Region could also have an impact on Site C.

In addition to legal challenges from B.C. Aboriginal groups, the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations have filed suit in federal court over the dam's potential impact on the Athabasca River delta.

Despite the impending legal battles, energy minister Bill Bennett said earlier this month that Site C would proceed with construction "in the summer."