Landowners who are facing a loss of property promise to keep fighting a large dam project in northeastern British Columbia
FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — Known for being highly fertile, many acres of farmland in British Columbia’s Peace River Valley have now turned into weedy fields.
More land will soon be swept away, no longer used for grazing cattle, producing crops or as a space for traditional hunting.
Within the next few years, the land here will be flooded by a hydroelectric dam and power station known as Site C, a contentious project now estimated to cost in excess of $10 billion.
The project has emboldened farmers, landowners and indigenous groups to fight it until the very end. They say it makes no economic sense, given costs for the dam have risen, and that the land on which it’s being built isn’t structurally sound.
As well, they argue the dam will be a detriment to wildlife and that other sources of power, whether through wind, solar, geothermal or natural gas, would be preferable.
“This has been hard to deal with. I’ve put life on pause,” said Colin Meek, who farms near the dam site. He has been told to move his home by the end of July so BC Hydro, the crown corporation behind the project, can start work on a new highway.
“I’ve woken up multiple times in the middle of the night thinking there is a Cat coming through my bedroom window, probably from a dream,” he said. “For people at BC Hydro, this is just a job for them. For us, it’s not a job. It’s our life.”
Esther and Poul Pedersen will also have to move. Their house is situated in an area that could eventually break off due to erosion from the dam flow.
Their neighbours to the west, farmers Arlene and Ken Boon, might also leave. A highway is slated to cut right by their home.
“We’re just rolling with the punches,” said Ken, president of the Peace Valley Landowners Association. “We’re not making any big moves until we know exactly what’s going on. It’s all you can do.”
Site C was initially estimated to cost between $5 and $6.6 billion, but now could reach as high as $12.5 billion.
It was first proposed for the area in the early 1970s, but later scrapped because it was considered too costly and damaging to the environment.
The project was then revived in 2010 by the former B.C. Liberal government, which forged ahead with construction in 2015, despite a previous review that said the dam wasn’t needed at the time.
The Liberals argued the dam was required because it would provide clean energy for 450,000 homes, supplying enough electricity for a larger population in the future.
But after construction began, geotechnical and engineering issues became apparent.
In 2017, two massive tension cracks, one 400 metres and the other 250 metres, opened in the north bank of the Peace River. The cracks delayed plans to divert the river by a year.
More issues then arose.
A British Columbia Utilities Commission review, which was struck in 2017 by the current NDP government, found the project could face more delays and that BC Hydro may have overestimated future electricity demand. The commission, however, couldn’t guarantee alternative energy projects would be more cost effective.
Following that information, as well as advice from other stakeholders, the governing NDP decided to continue with the project, arguing so much of it has been done that restoring the land would be costly and cause electricity rates to spike.
As well, the province would have more debt with no assets to show for it. There would have also been a loss of more than 2,000 jobs, and some First Nations are depending on the dam’s power.
Still, the project faces one more hurdle, a provincial court case that will decide whether treaty rights were violated when the government pushed ahead with construction.
The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations have filed an injunction to stop work until the treaty case is heard.
Some landowners in the area are hoping the case can bring the project to an end. Others wonder if it’s possible the project could die on its own; they believe BC Hydro won’t be able find bedrock that’s solid enough to support the river diversion tunnels.
Esther said she is fortunate that she and others affected by the dam have stood side-by-side in this fight.
“They can’t stop us,” she said. “All of us meet together and share information. Having that support when you want to throw in the towel is handy.”
To appease landowners, the province has since established a $20 million BC Hydro Peace Agricultural Compensation Fund to support farming in the region.
As well, BC Hydro said in a recent progress report that concerns for the project have lessened, particularly around meeting construction schedules. The report said Site C is still slated to be on time, coming into service in 2024.