‘They can’t stop us’: farmers dig in on Site C

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.”

 

Colin Meek was told to move his home to make way for a new highway for the project. | Jeremy Simes Photo

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.

 

Esther and Poul Pedersen will have to move their home because of the project. | Jeremy Simes Photo

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.

 

Ken and Arlene Boon have a stick campaign on their property, collecting donations to fight the Site C project in court. | Jeremy Simes Photo

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.

Blane and Maryann Meek will lose some of their grazing land once the project is complete. | Jeremy Simes Photo

About the author

Comments

  • Randal Hadland

    Jeremy Simes, thank you for a good article about this important river valley. I would like to know where you got the impression that the BCUC could not guarantee that the alternative energy portfolio would be cheaper, or whether they were ever asked to make that guarantee.

    One point I would like to make is that BC hydro as a Crown Corporation wanting to build this dam change the budget and proposed timeline every year to reflect the fact that they know it is growing increasingly expensive and behind schedule. No part of the dam is built yet and they have spent 2 Billion dollars largely looking for something, anything, solid to attach it to. So when they say that they are confident that it is slated to be on time, they mean whatever time the actually are looking at in their current estimate.

  • 18wheel

    Among other disinformation site C was not scrapped in the 1970s for the reasons purported (it was delayed for economic reasons that are no longer an issue half a century later) and all landowners knew the land (number 2 soil prone to early/late frost and unpredictable moisture levels) was still subject to site C rights of way the entire time, clearly stated.

    • Darryl R Taylor

      Which is a contributing factor to having stunted development of the local ag industry, and still does not make building the dam a prudent nor wise course of action.

      If nothing else, we are going to need every bit of diversity on an ecological level, and all of the arable land available in the North, to deal with what seems likely to pass over the coming decades.

      It’s getting a wee bit warm of late, don’t ya think?

  • Alain

    Keep up the good fight people of the peace valley this white elephant must not be allowed.
    We do not need a Muskrat Falls hydro project catastrophe in BC!!!

  • Monkeeworks

    The valley is the last of this kind of ecosystem. Hydro power is NOT clean power. It destroys all the land behind the dam. Might as well pump a reservoir of oil behind the dam because even after draining the dam the land is still dead. It will not return to it’s previous pristine condition. ever.

  • Darryl R Taylor

    A key point that is VERY applicable to this venue comes from a Swedish paper entitled “Applying Construal Level Theory to Communication Strategies for Participatory Sustainable Development”.

    (Yeah, that’s a mouthful)

    The skinny on that is that construal level theory divides how we perceive thing into a psychologically distant and abstract “high level”, and an immediate and concrete “low level”.

    The two levels both have their function and place in a healthy psyche, but both must be handled in different ways, and anytime you are up against hired gun Public Relations professionals, you better believe that they have a grasp of that difference.

    The strength that the dam’s proponents have there is that the supposed benefits of the dam (cheap power, short term employment of some people) are close, low construal levels to most people.

    Especially to the massive urban population of the lower mainland, that makes them a lot more “real” than a literally distant valley, lifestyles of farmers and First Nations folks that they can’t relate to (y’know, “dirt” and stuff), a numbered Treaty, a century’s worth of debt or environmental ecocide.

    On top of that distance, there is the human reflex of not looking at unpleasant things if it can be avoided, and for something that is playing out for most as soundbites and newspaper clips, that lets it be almost invisible.

    It sounds hokey, but the Swedish thinktank found that not only was it counterproductive to focus on informing people of the negative consequences of non-sustainability, but that it was more effective to address the abstract high level (where people think in terms of ideals and visions) with positive images of what a functionally sustainable future would look like.

    That’s where farmers in the Peace River Valley can shift things not only there, but across the board.

    Focus on the abundance that already exists, but also push it up a notch and live the possibilities as reality.

    Take selfies with the harvest and post them widely, brag about your best yields and the land that you work, to anyone and everyone who will listen.

    Talk to each other, yourselves, the family dog and the fields and trees about what you could imagine being if the valley was developed to it’s full potential.

    Day dream over the merging of modern cutting edge technologies with old wisdom and modern common sense.

    If you get people to see that in portion, the threat to it will make it self known in their minds without you having to spend any more time dwelling on it yourself.

    There is no site C, that’s just an illusion that too many silly people are letting impinge on the real world.

    And even if all of that isn’t enough, at the end of the day you will have had a better time of things, formed better memories, and left a much louder echo of what could have been.

    That’s reality, and there is a hunger for it in BC that you can feed.

    That’s what you do, right?

explore

Stories from our other publications