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Letter calls for B.C. to freeze Site C dam project while geotechnical risks probed

Click to play video 'Open letter calls for work on Site C dam to be stopped' Open letter calls for work on Site C dam to be stopped
Open letter calls for work on Site C dam to be stopped

A group of self-described “prominent citizens” has written to John Horgan calling for the province to freeze work on the Site C dam megaproject amid new geotechnical problems.

It comes after BC Hydro revealed “geological risk” on the project’s right bank, discovered at the end of 2019, in filings to the B.C. Utilities Commission in July.

The report deemed the overall project health “at risk” and noted “additional scope and design enhancements would be required to further enhance the foundations of the structures on the right bank, including the powerhouse, spillways and earthfill dam.”

Read more: BC Hydro has ‘serious concerns’ over Site C budget due to COVID-19 costs, delays

The province appointed former deputy finance minister Peter Milburn as a “special advisor” to probe the project’s problems and costs.

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While Milburn does his work the project should be paused, states the letter, signed by former BC Hydro CEO and president Marc Eliesen, former chair of the joint federal-provincial Site C review panel Harry Swain, former MLAs and MPs, First Nations representatives and environmentalists.

Click to play video 'Calls for public inquiry into earthquakes near Site C dam' Calls for public inquiry into earthquakes near Site C dam
Calls for public inquiry into earthquakes near Site C dam

“The Site C project is years away from completion, is mired in problems that may be unfixable, and confronts new, potentially horrendous cost over-runs,” states the letter.

“The prudent course of action — one that respects Indigenous and Treaty rights as well as the interests of all taxpayers and hydro ratepayers — is to immediately suspend all construction activities at the project. This includes the imminent and critical river diversion.”

Read more: Site C construction reaches major breakthrough at river diversion tunnel

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The river diversion is scheduled for fall 2020, and missing it would push the project timeline back by at least a year.

The signatories also call for the appointment of an independent panel to assess and cost out the projects geotechnical problems, and for a full public release of project costs and future projections.

Click to play video 'Site C construction achieves major breakthrough' Site C construction achieves major breakthrough
Site C construction achieves major breakthrough

The last official cost estimate for the project in 2017, when the NDP re-approved the project, was $10.7 billion, though some observers now peg it as high as $12 billion. When the BC Liberals originally announced the project in 2010, it was projected to cost $6.6 billion.

Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said BC Hydro has known about problems with geotechnical stability at the site since at least the 1980s.

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Read more: BC Hydro ‘scaling down’ work on Site C Dam amid coronavirus pandemic

“I don’t think it comes as a surprise that they’ve got significant problems at the site because their own records showed that when they examined the rock at this site more than 30 years ago, they knew that there were weaknesses in the rock at that point,” he told Global News.

I think the big outstanding question is … what are the extent of geotechnical problems at the site? And how significant and how costly are they going to be to fix?”

Global News has requested comment from all three major party leaders.

“They don’t even know how to address the problems that have been identified … much less how much those solutions would cost,” said Green leader Sonia Furstenau.

“It was unsupportable in 2017, it is beyond unsupportable. Absolutely the NDP have to stop digging.”

NDP Leader John Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson did not respond by press time.

However, Bruce Ralston, BC NDP candidate for Surrey-Whalley, said the BC Liberals “recklessly approved the Site C project.”

“They refused to let B.C.’s independent energy watchdog review the project and they signed off on a design that included significant geological risks.

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“We have been clear that Site C is not a project we would have started. But our government was forced to make a decision looking forward, not back. And we weren’t willing to ask British Columbians to take on $4 billion in debt – this would have put badly needed investments in schools, hospitals and other important infrastructure projects at risk,” he said in a statement.

“When we formed government, we knew there were significant cost pressures and risks with the project. The global COVID-19 pandemic and geological challenges have dramatically added to these challenges.”