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Smoky numbers in Site C poll

59% of province unaware of project

BC Hydro claims a new poll shows potential support for the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam project to be as high as 84 per cent province-wide.

However, opponents of the project are skeptical of how those results were reached.

A survey of 1,054 British Columbians by Anderson Insight released Monday found 42 per cent support the construction of the $8 billion project, while another 42 per cent voiced acceptance of the dam with conditions on construction or other factors.

"It tells us there's a strong base of support for project," said BC Hydro spokesman Dave Conway.

According to the survey, conducted in September, respondents indicated support for the dam under conditions ranging from limiting and mitigating environmental impacts, taking the needs of affected residents and communities into account, and ensuring the project receives approval from an independent review process.

Only 13 per cent voiced opposition to the project, the study found.

In the northern and northeastern regions of B.C. specifically, 43 per cent voiced support, with another 38 per cent voicing support with conditions. Only 17 per cent of those surveyed in these areas voiced opposition.

"It shows that British Columbians are practical - that they want us to, as much as possible, avoid and mitigate any potential environmental impacts, that they want us to take care of communities and people, and, at the end of the day, they want to find a way to get to yes, because people know there is increasing demand for electricity," Conway said.

"If you look at all the ways we're plugged in in today's world, tablets, phones, we're talking about the addition of electric cars, all of this takes electric power. Large hydro has provided that over our history at relatively cheap prices, and I think they understand that."

However, the survey shows Hydro has much work to do in pulling British Columbians south of the Peace Region out of the dark when it comes to the project's existence.

The poll found 59 per cent of the province is unaware of the project - and that counts the high awareness levels in the Peace, where 78 per cent of the population has heard of or read about Site C.

For the Peace Valley Environment Association, the lack of awareness is cause for skepticism.

"Here you are conducting a poll and advertising and broadcasting conclusions about how it supports your project when 59 per cent of your respondents don't know anything about Site C," said PVEA coordinator Andrea Morison. "It's completely based on some really false premises as far as I'm concerned."

Morison said the survey actually proves that a majority of British Columbians don't outright support the dam. Further, it shows much of the province is unaware of her organization and other opponents' concerns: namely that mitigation measures remain unclear, that the independent environmental review of the project currently underway isn't truly independent, and that Site C isn't an affordable project for taxpayers.

"Already, BC Hydro is talking about rates going up 26.4 per cent, and this is without Site C," she said. (However, provincial Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett has repeatedly said that the utility would not be allowed to raise electricity rates that much.)

"For those sitting on the fence, the conditions they feel they might be swayed to support the dam under really aren't being met," Morison added.

A review panel appointed by the federal and provincial governments is currently sifting through Hydro's 20,000-page environmental impact statement. As the process rolls along, Hydro expects awareness of the project to grow, Conway said.

"It's typical of large infrastructure projects outside of the immediate area where they're being done that awareness levels drops, and that awareness levels are much higher in the location where they're being done," he said.

According to BC Hydro, Site C is needed to meet a 40 per cent increase in electricity demand over the next 20 years, as the province's population is projected to jump by one million people.

Liz Logan, tribal chief for the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, said 80 per cent of the Doig, Halfway River, Prophet and West Moberly First Nations oppose the project. The association isn't taking too much from the survey, she said.

"It's great to see only four out of 10 people actually support the project, which is hardly a majority. I'm not surprised," Logan said. "The cost is just too, too high."

The costs of the project were not mentioned in the survey questions, Logan noted. More people also support purchasing power from independent producers than building a new dam when surveyed, she said.

The telephone survey polled 804 people across B.C. between Sept. 3 and 8, with another 250 being surveyed in the north and northeast between Sept. 26 and Sept. 29. The margins of error are 3.5 per cent and 6.3 per cent, respectively.

The sample size represents 0.0002 per cent of the province's population. However, Bruce Anderson, principal and owner of Anderson Insight, called the sample size "robust" - double the size usually used for provincial surveys, and typical of most nationwide surveys.

"At a certain point. your margin of error doesn't start to go down much by doubling the sample size," he said.

The Peace Valley Environment Association has about 400 members, and has partnerships with the Sierra Club and Wilderness Committee, Morison said. The group is looking to conduct its own polling on the project and launch a communications campaign in the future, she said.