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COMMENTARY: British Columbia was warned about its looming hydro disaster

Click to play video 'B.C. Leaders debate 2020: Is the Site C Dam project the NDP’s dumpster fire?' B.C. Leaders debate 2020: Is the Site C Dam project the NDP’s dumpster fire?
WATCH: (Oct. 13, 2020) BC NDP Leader John Horgan during the 2020 leaders' debate is asked by moderator Shachi Kurl if the Site C Dam energy project is his government's 'dumpster fire.' – Oct 13, 2020

British Columbia taxpayers are hanging onto their wallets, anticipating a critical report on an over-budget megaproject that could turn into the province’s biggest-ever boondoggle.

The Site C dam, currently under construction on the mighty Peace River, has already seen its price tag soar through the stratosphere.

The hydroelectric megaproject has been touted as a renewable energy miracle that could generate clean, green power for a century.

But the costs are spiralling quickly out of control.

Read more: Cancel Site C? Horgan says he’ll ‘take action’ if report finds ‘it’s the wrong way to proceed’

Originally budgeted at $6.6 billion in 2010, the 1,100-megawatt dam has seen its projected price tag steadily bloat to $10.7 billion in the last official estimate.

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But now there are fears the costs could explode even higher, due to nightmarish engineering challenges at the remote worksite in the B.C. Interior.

The biggest problem is the loose, shifting land base in the Peace River valley, threatening the stability of the massive dam, powerhouse and spillway.

“The dam is not being built in a narrow rocky canyon like most dams you see in Western Canada and in the western U.S.,” investigative reporter Sarah Cox, of the environmental news website thenarwhal.ca, told me.

“It’s being built in a valley notorious for landslides,” Cox said, noting the riverbank and surrounding land base is composed largely of sand, silt, clay and, most notoriously, brittle shale.

“It’s essentially compressed mud, and that has led to B.C. Hydro’s worst nightmare.”

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Construction crews have been pouring tonnes of concrete at the site in an effort the stabilize the riverbank, but there are concerns that it won’t be enough.

Now British Columbians are bracing for two looming reports on the project: One by B.C. Hydro, the province’s public electrical utility, and another fresh engineering review ordered by NDP Premier John Horgan.

“We’re going to take a look at that,” Horgan said during the recent B.C. election, in which his New Democrats were re-elected with a large majority government.

“If it determines that we’re on the wrong course, we’re going to take the appropriate action to protect B.C. Hydro ratepayers and to protect British Columbians.”

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

Could that appropriate action include cancelling the project? Horgan would not rule that out.

“This is absolutely serious for B.C. Hydro ratepayers and for the project,” he said. “I don’t want to diminish that in any way.”

Walking away at this point would be shocking development after the province has already spent close to $6 billion on the project so far.

It would also be a stunning flip-flop by Horgan, who ordered continuing construction of the project in 2017.

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Actually, it would be more like a flip-flop-flip, when you consider the history of the dam.

The project was started by the previous Liberal government under then-premier Christy Clark. Horgan, then the opposition leader, opposed it.

But once Horgan became premier in 2017, he changed his mind, arguing that the project was “past the point of no return” and it was too late to stop building it.

At the time of Horgan’s conversion, the province had spent about $1.9 billion.

It would be a revolting development indeed to see Horgan switch positions again, and walk away from scarred landscape and a massive hole in the ground after pouring another $4 billion down the drain.

As British Columbians wait for the verdict, no one can say the province wasn’t warned.

Many have compared the problem-plagued Site C dam to the over-budget Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Newfoundland.

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

Originally budgeted at $6.2 billion, Muskrat Falls is now pegged to cost $13.1 billion.

A public inquiry eviscerated the business case for the project and concluded the Newfoundland government failed to protect the public.

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In 2017 — before Horgan decided to keep building the Site C dam — key Newfoundland officials urged him not to make the same costly mistake.

“My comment to British Columbia is a big red sign saying ‘Stop!’,” David Vardy, former CEO of Newfoundland’s public utilities board, told the environmental website DeSmog Canada.

“This is crazy. Don’t go ahead with this,” Vardy pleaded.

Horgan didn’t listen to him. Now a critical day of reckoning is looming for British Columbia, with the fate of the Site C dam hanging in the balance.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.