Site C would face utilities commission scrutiny if NDP elected, leader says

Construction would be nearing the two-year mark, but NDP Leader John Horgan says he will send the Site C dam before the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) for scrutiny if elected premier in May.

In year-end interviews with the Canadian Press and Globe and Mail, Horgan said he would send the project before the commission for review before taking a firm position on the $8.8-billion project.

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"Until I get an opportunity to look at the contracts to see what they say, what are the opportunities for the province to step back from this, I think it’s irresponsible for me to go beyond saying, ‘I am going to look at it when I get there,’” Horgan told the Globe and Mail.

Horgan is being urged by many fronts to halt the dam, both from environmentalists and local landowners, and former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, who oppose the project over its costs and impacts to indigenous treaty rights and productive valley farmland. 

The commission is responsible for issuing certificates of public convenience and necessity on public utility projects, though the province exempted Site C from BCUC scrutiny when it passed the Clean Energy Act in 2010. Nevertheless, the federal-provincial joint review panel tasked to conduct the dam's environmental assessment in 2013 and 2014 recommended the province send the dam to the BCUC for a proper review of its cost and economics. 

That call that has been reinforced by the Union of B.C. Municipalities, however, Energy Minister Bill Bennett has resisted those calls.

"When the Clean Energy Act was passed, there was a decision made that if government was to build Site C, it would be a monumental decision in terms of energy policy that only duly elected officials have a right to make, as opposed to organization like the BCUC that is made up of bureaucrats and lawyers," Bennett told the Alaska Highway News in 2015.

The first phases of the dam's construction began in July 2015. It is the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in B.C. history, expected to produce 1,100 megawatts of electricity and flood more than 80 kilometres of river valley including farmland and sites sacred to area First Nations. 

In an annual progress report filed to the utilities commission Dec. 21, BC Hydro says it had spent $1.3 billion on the dam by the end of September 2016. Meanwhile, it reported more than 1,860 workers were working on the dam as of October 2016, with 85 per cent of the workers from B.C.

Premier Christy Clark has promised to get the dam to the "point of no return," but Horgan doesn't believe work has advanced that far and said a BCUC review would be expedited if he wins the election.

“Christy Clark isn’t going to stop it," Horgan told the Globe.

"I am going to send it to the (utilities commission) and if the reviews come back saying it’s not in the public interest, it won’t proceed."

British Columbians head to the polls May 9. 

According to BC Hydro's Site C construction schedule, it expects cofferdam and river diversion tunnel construction to be ongoing at that time, along with construction of the 60-metre high earthfill dam. It expects clearing work for Highway 29 realignment in the Bear Flat in Cache Creek area to begin this month, with a road construction tender issued in the spring.

BC Hydro also expects Voith Hydro, the dam's turbine and generators contractor, to begin construction of a temporary manufacturing facility at the dam site in March, while substation and transmission line procurements will also be underway.

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