Author Tags: Environment, Journalism
A 93-square-kilometre artificial lake is bound to drown the best topsoil left in northern B.C. when a 60-metre-high wall of compacted earth will stretch more than a kilometre across the main stem of the Peace River. Farmers, ranchers, trappers and habitat to innumerable creatures big and small will lose their homes as a result. To witness the first steps of construction for the most expensive infrastructure project in B.C. history, Pollon accompanied by photojournalist Ben Nelms paddled through the section of the river that will be destroyed by the Site C dam reservoir. By touring the same stretch by land they interviewed locals who stand to lose everything, a prosperous home to people for over eleven thousand years. The Peace in Peril (Harbour 2016) tells the story of the trade-off of hydro power for resources like timber and farmland. It was longlisted for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in 2017.
Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver-based independent journalist who reports on the politics of natural resources, focusing on energy, mines and oceans. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, The Globe and Mail, and National Geographic Books, earning nominations by the National Magazine Awards (2016) and Western Magazine Awards (2013) for best business writing. Since 2008 he has been a Contributing Editor at The Tyee.
The Peace in Peril (Harbour Publishing 2016) $24.95, 978-1-55017-780-0. Photos by Ben Nelms.
The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam
from David Conn
The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam by Christopher Pollon (Harbour $24.95). Photos by Ben Nelms
British Columbians have been told we have the third-lowest residential electricity rates in North America. That’s partly because two dams along the Peace River, envisioned by W.A.C. Bennett and executed by Gordon Shrum and thousands of workers, have produced reliable energy for decades to support growing industries and settlements throughout the province.
Now BC Hydro has suggested rates will rise about 30% over the next ten years. We’re told a third Peace River dam and power station would help maintain regional employment for the next decade. Extra energy could power new industries like condensing natural gas for export as LNG, or producing hydrogen for fuel cells.
Expected to be built by 2024, BC Hydro’s proposed dam called Site C will officially cost $8 billion, but probably much more, and will flood about 4,000 hectares of class 1 to 5 agricultural land, 5,500 hectares in total.
A 93-square-kilometre artificial lake will drown the best topsoil left in northern B.C. as a 60-metre-high wall of compacted earth will stretch more than a kilometre across the main stem of the Peace River.
This latest energy spinner has already resulted in lawsuits and local hostilities.
Environmentalists and other activists want citizens to know some of the province’s best agricultural potential will be lost.
BC Hydro states it’s in dialogue with local First Nations about their land use rights and the power company states it will compensate valley farmers and ranchers for lost property, but property values are dropping the longer they refuse to budge.
People in urban areas know precious little about this massive undertaking.
In September of 2015, Christopher Pollon and photographer Ben Nelms decided to explore the planned reservoir area—between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John—by river and road. Without an assignment, they packed camping gear, tied a canoe on Nelms’ truck and drove northeast across the province.
“Ben did some early scouting so we didn’t go in cold,” Pollon recalls. “He and I had worked together before, and we worked well in the field. We thought it might be a long form journalism piece.”
Pollon’s text and Nelms’ colour photographs in The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam now render a strong impression of the natural bounty in the flood reserve area where development has been mostly halted in preparation for the BC Hydro project.
Reaching the Peace Canyon Dam, the pair paddled downriver, casting for bull trout and whitefish while camping on wooded islands. “The Peace River was portrayed quite often as damaged goods,” says Pollon, but in spite of fluctuating water levels, they found an abundance of vegetation and wildlife.
Back on shore, the duo traversed Highway 29 and listened as farmers, ranchers and trappers talked about their lives. Some riverside families have been against the dams for decades.
Farmers stated that with its long summer days, the higher latitude Peace Valley could be as productive as the Fraser Valley, but nowadays much outstanding agricultural land has now been left fallow.
When Pollon returned to Vancouver, he discovered the Site C project had already had a full review by the B.C. Utilities Commission way back in 1983, under the Social Credit government—and the plan was kiboshed.
“It was deemed to be not in the public interest,” says Pollon. “But this time around it was exempted from the process. Instead the [B.C. Liberal] government did more internal reviews….
“The difference between ’83 and now is scrutiny: independent scrutiny of cost estimates, of the forecasting assumptions that went into it, of the need for the project, everything.”
Critics of the project claim the demand for electrical power in the province has been flat for the past ten years, confounding BC Hydro’s forecasts. Environmentalists assert that if extra energy is needed now, there are other ways to produce it rather than an expensive megaproject that will flood a fertile valley. Pollon also considers the views of some experts beyond the Peace, such as SFU energy economist Mark Jaccard who insists Site C could be a valuable asset.
The environmental impact will be major, reaching as far as the Peace-Athabaska delta in northeastern Alberta. As 1,800 workers log and reshape the valley, local First Nations, Amnesty International, BCGEU, Peace Valley Landowner Association [PVLA], Royal Society of Canada and many other groups are opposed. Outstanding treaty rights issues remain to be settled. Two First Nations and the PVLA have been in provincial court to try to halt the project.
Pollon hopes his book will produce “an awareness of the Peace as our economic engine, but also the fact that it’s being sacrificed for our benefit.”
Freelance writer David Conn is a former librarian who lives in Vancouver.
Crackpot conspiracy theory?
Among the people Christopher Pollon interviewed was Art Hadland who operates a 2,400-acre seed farm.
As a former commissioner on the North Panel of the Agricultural Land Reserve from 1990 to 1996, Art Hadland claims Site C will require the single largest removal of farmland from the ALR in B.C. history.
Hadland also alleges that Site C will bring about the demise of BC Hydro—on purpose.
Hadland wants to remind people that ex-premier Gordon Campbell set about privatizing pieces of BC Hydro in 2002, outsourcing 1,500 employees to Accenture and creating the BC Transmission Corporation. Both schemes, according to Pollon’s book, lost millions. “Consider, says Hadland, that BC Hydro’s current debt is over $70 billion. And while Site C is projected to cost about $8.8 billion (including contingency), the recently completed Shepherd Energy facility in Calgary—which produces energy capacity comparable to that projected for Site C—cost about $1.4 billion to build.”
Hadland predicts the added debt of Site C will then force/enable the B.C. government to sell the profitable components worth billions, financed by British Columbians, to private enterprise at fire sale prices.
About four months after Pollon spent four hours at Hadland’s house, the Peace River farmer was arrested for mischief by the RCMP near a Site C construction site.
The Peace in Peril
by John Gellard, in The Ormsby Review
The 100 kilometres of the Peace River Valley between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St John has rich alluvial soil. Blessed with a relatively benign microclimate, it contains excellent farmland and is an invaluable wildlife habitat. For northern British Columbia, it’s as close to the Garden of Eden as you can get.
BC Hydro’s Site C Dam, under construction on the Peace River near Fort St John, threatens to end this fertile and little-known oasis. Hydro and the government it represents see the Peace River Valley as a commodity to be destroyed, as farmland to be blithely inundated. They are fixated on a new opportunity to expand transmission lines feeding into provincial electrical grids.
Government and capital seem to have decreed that the Peace River Valley’s highest and best use is to be flooded and turned into a series of dams and sterile reservoirs with unstable banks awash with a generation’s worth of waterlogged forest debris. They see only short-term opportunities: a make-work project for transient politicians and for engineers whose very careers depend on the continuous damning of natural rivers.
To this end, premier Christy Clark has vowed that construction of the Site C Dam must be pushed past the “point of no return” before the election in May 2017.
Christopher Pollon and Ben Nelms, author and photographer of The Peace in Peril, canoed down the river in 2015, camping on some of the fifty wild wooded islands where moose, caribou, deer, and elk migrate and calve in relative safety from bears, cougars and wolves. They got to know farmers facing the loss of their third-generation family farms and First Nations people who might lose their homes and their three hundred-generation hunting and gathering grounds.
Ken and Arlene Boon own one of the homesteads that stand in the way of the new highway to the dam site. “The road goes right through our home,” says Arlene, whose grandfather once resisted eviction in that very spot. BC Hydro needs them to vacate immediately, though they will be allowed to rent back some of their land and farm it for a few years.
The Boon farm is a classic example of what can be done in this gentle microclimate. Ken and Arlene Boon grow alfalfa and huge sunflowers on the flood plain and lease seven acres to Mike Van Zandwyk, who grows vegetables for the local market in Fort St. John. On a higher bench, the Boons grow oats and barley, and on the slopes below the boreal forest, they graze cattle.
Pollon and Nelms are careful to give a fair hearing to people who favour the Site C Dam. One of them, Vic Gouldie, is a trapper who worked for decades on dam projects. He stands to lose half his trap-line, but he has picked a spot to build himself a lakeside cabin once the reservoir is in place. He congratulates himself on his foresight. “Now that’s positive thinking!” he remarks.
Vic pokes fun at the “Paddle for the Peace,” an annual gathering that attracts thousands in early July. “These fucking idiots who come up here to save the Peace. They have a big rally and a weenie roast” (mock crying) “Oh, we shouldn’t. It will be gone forever.”
Vic’s dream of creating an “Okanagan of the North” seems a bit delusional, but Pollon treats his dream with respect -- or at least neutrality.
A few young guys, also newcomers, feature in The Peace in Peril. Two are cruising timber for the upcoming clear-cutting. “There’s years of work here,” one of them enthuses. Another young fisherman on a weekend visit from the oil patch says, “The money’s amazing and it [the reservoir] might make the fishing better.”
These newcomers express a persistent delusional dream of lakeside living, with a blissful unawareness that the soft banks of the reservoir will slough for decades, just like huge Williston Lake upstream behind the Bennett Dam, which has prevented any significant use of the “lakeside.”
Damning is an industry of devastation. You can’t wave a magic wand to create a bucolic picture-perfect cottage country. And you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Besides, rotting soil and vegetation in the reservoir will convert inorganic mercury to methyl mercury, which will poison the water and the fish.
Generally, Pollon conveys the impression that the dam is an abomination. He quotes a range of considered and expert opinion that agrees that it’s a bad idea. Harry Swain, past chairman of the Joint Review Panel, asserts that we don’t need the power and we’ll end up selling it at a loss.
Mark Eliesen, former CEO of BC Hydro, considers the Site C dam a “white elephant” that will mire Hydro so deeply in debt that Hydro itself might have to be sold off.
Agronomist Wendy Holm has a different objection. She argues that the land is too valuable to be sacrificed to a sterile megaproject and the industry it represents. The Peace Valley could produce enough fresh vegetables to feed a million people, not to mention grain and beef.
Holm is not alone. With plain common sense Mike Van Zandwyk, Bear Flat vegetable farmer, contends that, “With Site C, the jobs and the money will come and go. Then what? If more people farmed here, we would build the jobs without Site C.”
Pollon also points to an apparent “scorched earth policy” on the government’s part: a twisted and deceitful logic that if you destroy enough of the ecology soon enough, there will be nothing left worth saving.
Such an ulterior motive is hard to prove; but as I write, the feller-bunchers are getting ready to clear cut the Watson Slough, breeding ground for 116 songbird species and sixty waterfowl species.
Pollon’s writing style is an engaging combination of facts and figures, history, adventure, and human interest; Nelms’s photographs are vivid and informative; the book’s production values are high.
Far from expert canoeists, Pollon and Nelms get into a few scrapes. They beach their rented canoe on a rocky shore in the dead of night only to awake in the morning to find themselves high and dry because of water level fluctuations from the Bennett Dam. They get chased by a Search & Rescue helicopter, having been reported missing because they forgot to call home.
Their escapades add excitement to the narrative -- and their hair-raising misadventures remind us that this part of the Peace is still off the beaten track.
A pleasing coffee table book and a timely call to action, The Peace in Peril is also an excellent primer not only to what is left of the Peace River Valley, but also to the unstoppable march of capital and the willingness of the present provincial government to squander the miniscule percentage of British Columbia that is cultivable and productive for agriculture.
John Gellard spent his childhood in England and Trinidad, donated his adolescence to an English boarding school, earned an MA in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, and taught English and Drama in London, Ontario, for seven years. In 1973, he arrived in the West Kootenay where he felled and peeled pine logs on his “wild land” property and built a log cabin. Gravitating to the city, he taught drama for thirty years at Vancouver Technical Secondary School and Kitsilano Secondary. He still helps run writing workshops for students, notably (since 1993) an annual overnight retreat on Gambier Island. His articles have appeared in the Globe and Mail and the Watershed Sentinel. He takes an active interest in environmental issues and travels extensively in B.C. He lives among friends in Kitsilano and on Hornby Island, has two grown sons, and retired from teaching English and Writing at Kitsilano Secondary School after being named Canada’s “Best High School Teacher” in a Maclean’s poll in August 2005.