December 16, 2014 10:28 am
Updated: August 6, 2016 1:38 am

Everything you need to know about the Site C dam

The projected BC Hydro Site C Dam is pictured in an artist's rendering. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Hydro.

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Today, the provincial government is expected to announce whether or not they will build the Site C dam, an $8.5 billion decision that has been debated on and off in British Columbia for more than 30 years.

Saying yes would mean a new, clean energy source that could power 450,000 homes. It would also spark several legal battles, could create strain on B.C.’s labour force and may substantially increase the province’s debt.

Here’s what you need to know about Site C.

Why is it called Site C anyway?

For years, a number of places along the Peace River were considered as possible locations for dams by surveyors. Two of those were turned into reality by BC Hydro—”Site A”, which became the W.A.C. Bennett Dam at Williston Lake, and “Site B”, which became the Peace Canyon Dam. In the 70s and early 80s, BC Hydro was planning to build a dam at a third site, and the name has stuck.

ARCHIVES: BC Hydro looked ready to go ahead with their third dam in the Peace region. Dale Hicks reports. (Original date: Nov. 24, 1981)

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What exactly is it? And what would it do?

Site C would be a hydroelectric facility on the Peace River, seven kilometres south of Fort St. John. A newly created reservoir would be about 83 kilometres long and two-to-three times wider than the current river, flooding 5,550 hectares of land. Current estimates are it would take eight years and $8.5 billion to build the facility.

When finished, BC Hydro estimates it would provide about 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity each year. Current forecasts have B.C. needing new sources of electricity by 2028, and Site C would move that date well into the future. In addition, the Joint Review Panel says Site C “would produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than any source save nuclear.”

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Why has the debate been going on for so long?

The government backed away from Site C in 1982 through a combination of regional opposition and new forecasts from BC Hydro saying they didn’t need the additional energy. However, because Hydro had already created plans for the dam and bought up the surrounding land, the possibility of building Site C has always existed. In the late 1980s, there was a push to build Site C with money from the California government, which was desperate for long-term stable energy sources, but that too fell through.

ARCHIVES: Site C could have gone ahead, but with Californians getting most of the power. Eli Sopow reports. (Original date: Jan. 22, 1987)

Near the end of last decade, BC Hydro began signalling that revisiting Site C was an option to meet B.C.’s growing demands for electricity. In 2010, premier Gordon Campbell announced the provincial government was moving forward to build the dam.

ARCHIVES: After 30 years of discussion, the provincial government announced new plans for Site C. Brian Coxford reports. (Original date: April 19, 2010)

In the four years since, BC Hydro has received the necessary approval from regulatory bodies to move forward with the project—now it awaits the government’s decision.

Who is opposed to the Site C?

Broadly speaking, there are three groups most against the Site C project. The first is local aboriginal groups, who have already launched a lawsuit, and say Site C would have a devastating impact on their traditional land.

WATCH: Chief Roland Willson from the West Moberly First Nation discusses why he’s against Site C.

Local farmers have also been heavily critical of the project, arguing that the provincial government has ignored key parts of the Joint Review Panel’s assessments.

“The very best farmaland in all of northern B.C. would be lost,” says Ken Boone, the President of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, who launched a legal challenge in October. More than 3,800 hectares of agricultural land would be lost with Site C, including Boone’s farm.

“It has everything you need to grow so many different crops. To flood that would be a heartbreaking loss. Future generations will probably judge us by it. We’re not planning on losing this,” he says.

“We’re hoping for the best, but we are prepared for the worst. We’ve filed our legal challenges and we have full intention to follow through with that.”

Finally, environmental groups have long opposed the project because of the loss of habitat Site C would result in.

Archives: When BC Hydro started to revisit the long-dormant Site C dam proposal in 2008, opposition in the Peace reawakened. Ted Chernecki reports. (Original date: Feb. 21, 2008)

What do people in the area think?

Most people in the The Peace River Regional District tend to agree that opinion is fairly split, with battle lines on the long-debated issue having been drawn some time ago.

“I think everyone just wants to know one way or another,” says Brad Sperling, Regional Director for Electoral Area C, where Site C is located.

“There’s the cost obviously, and whether it’s needed. Environmental issues are also big, obviously. Then on the other hand, there’s a lot of people for it, because of long-range electrical benefits.”

Sperling says he hasn’t made up his mind on the project one way or the other. But he does think some of the economic benefits touted by BC Hydro—including “10,000 person-years of direct employment during construction” and “130 million to regional GDP”— are overblown, as he believes much of the jobs will go to workers who will live in work camps and leave when the project is done.

“Very little of the money gets circulated back,” he says. “This area is so busy right now with the oil and gas industry. There’s people crying for workers up here. For me, if I had one choice, it’d be natural gas. It’s far more beneficial for this area.”

Could the government say no to the project?

Legislative bureau chief Keith Baldrey says most observers believe the government will approve Site C today.

“Given the government’s fondness for industrial development and resource activities, it would be surprising if they didn’t. The pattern is they support it,” he says.

However, Baldrey says there are two main reasons the government may say no. One is that the cost and manpower of Site C and a fledgling LNG industry may be too prohibitive at once. In New York last week, Clark told Bloomberg media that “LNG is our priority in British Columbia and we don’t need to do Site C in order to fuel up the LNG industry…Hopefully, we will find a way to do both, but if it’s one or the other, I’m choosing LNG.”

The other is the increased rights First Nations groups have been given by courts in recent rulings.

READ MORE: Top court grants land title to B.C. First Nation

Baldrey says given the current legal climate, the government may be reluctant to approve any large project until they get complete approval local aboriginal groups. That means if the government says yes to Site C, it will likely be far from the end of the discussion.

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