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Narwhal reporter Sarah Cox walks in a forest

Sixteen. Billion. Dollars. 

That’s the latest, greatest price tag for a project that now holds the dubious honour of being the most expensive dam in Canadian history. Yes, I’m talking about B.C.’s Site C dam.

Premier John Horgan announced the whopping new sum on Friday, and our go-to Site C reporter Sarah Cox was there (virtually) to make sense of it all as the government doubles down on its pledge to get the project built.

After Sarah filed her breaking story (and presumably drank her fourth cup of coffee that day), I caught up with her over video on our Instagram page to suss out the facts from the political-speak. Here’s what we chatted about:

Carol: One of the major reasons why we’re hearing about this new price increase has to do with this issue of slope instability and the safety concerns at the dam. I wonder if you could tell us a little about that.

Sarah: The Site C dam is being built in a valley that’s notoriously unstable, prone to large landslides. We’ve known this, BC Hydro engineers flagged [potential] geotechnical problems years ago, but as construction began it became apparent that there are very, very serious geotechnical issues. When they announced the price increase — from less than $11 billion to $16 billion — they said 50 per cent of that was due to the geotechnical issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. But the other 50 per cent of the cost increase was not revealed. So it’s just one problem after another with this project and if the date of completion doesn’t move anymore, we’re just barely halfway through. I think we can expect some more bad news announcements.

Why is it unstable where they’re building the dam?

The dam’s actually not being anchored to bedrock. They’re trying to anchor it to shale, which is basically compacted mud. I know most people haven’t been to the Peace River Valley, but you can picture a spectacularly beautiful valley, very steep in places, with agricultural land largely on one side and what used to be beautiful boreal forest on the other side. But it is prone to large landslides and the terrain is just notoriously unstable.

I think the question that’s going to be on a lot of people’s minds is: ‘why is this project going ahead?’ What’s your read?

The reason that was given was there are 4,500 people working on this project, they didn’t want to lose those jobs during the pandemic. And also this idea that B.C. needs the energy. Well, every single independent look has concluded that we don’t need the energy, even with the electrification of the province. Another reason was that Premier John Horgan said it would result in a $216 annual increase to people’s hydro bills over the next 10 years if it were cancelled immediately — that’s about $18 a month. Again, we don’t know quite how they’re coming up with that number. They’ve been wrong about every other number to do with this project. Assuming that the project is completed, the cost won’t come on our hydro bills until the project comes into service, which isn’t now until 2025. 

What is going on with the case that’s being brought by First Nations against this project?

That case will start next March — it will be a full six-month trial. West Moberly First Nations says the Site C dam and two previous dams on the Peace River constitute an unjustifiable infringement of their Treaty Rights. And the question of whether this project violates Treaty Rights has never been answered by the courts and the project has proceeded without that being answered. One number that’s been put out there if West Moberly wins their case is that it could add another billion dollars in a settlement claim to the cost of this project.

The government has always been specific in describing this project as a clean energy project. But it turns out that large-scale hydro projects actually do have an enormous impact. Can you talk a little bit about what those environmental impacts are?

When University of British Columbia researchers looked at the project, they found Site C will have more serious adverse environmental effects than any project ever examined in the history of Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act. So that’s quite a huge impact. It includes flooding habitat for more than 100 species at risk, destroying wetlands, poisoning fish like bull trout with methylmercury — the list goes on and on. BC Hydro’s environmental impact statement for the project was 15,000 pages long.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is something the B.C. government has said it’s signing onto. How should people understand the government moving ahead with this project at the same time it’s promising to respect Indigenous Rights?

A lot of people feel there’s quite a contradiction there. UNDRIP says that large industrial projects like Site C should only proceed with the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples. Well West Moberly First Nations says it did not have their free, prior and informed consent. Prophet River First Nation, which just settled with the government, said it had not given consent for the project when it was approved. And in fact the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called on Canada’s government to halt construction of Site C until it does receive that free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples.

Do you have anything you want to put on people’s radar as they mull this news?

I think my final thought would be just that this is public money that’s being spent. It’s going to show up on your hydro bills eventually and/or as taxpayers. And that it’s been a project that’s proceeded with the utmost secrecy and that people have a right to demand transparency for public projects. That transparency is only going to come when enough people ask for it.


For more of Sarah’s first-rate insights, go here to watch our full conversation.

Take care and stay off slippery slopes,

Carol Linnitt
Managing editor
Carol Linnitt headshot

The Narwhal in the world
Photographer Mike Graeme wearing a Narwhal toque
Remember when we asked y’all if you could help make our new fellowships for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) photographers a reality? Well good news: our wonderful community stepped up! We are delighted to share that we not only reached but surpassed our fundraising goal to make the fellowships, in partnership with Room Up Front, a reality. That means we’re going to be able to provide more support for these up-and-coming photographers.

We owe a massive thank you to photographer Mike Graeme, who, after learning about the fellowships, created a fundraising page on his Facebook profile and asked his network to donate.

And boy, did they step up big time. All told, Mike’s community came together and raised $1,000(!) to support the fellowships. We want to give a special shoutout to Sinixt filmmaker Derrick LaMere, who made an incredibly generous donation. 

Did we mention an anonymous donor stepped up and gave $3,500?! We are beside ourselves with gratitude and the deeeeeepest well of good feelings that come with knowing the support we have out there with our readership. Your generosity will help us work toward our commitment to build a more diverse and equitable media ecosystem.
The Narwhal's Emma Gilchrist pictured on a boat
In more Big Deal News, guess who had their column was published in The Globe and Mail? Our very own editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist, who makes the case for why Canada should support independent news organizations like The Narwhal.

“The growth of independent news should be seen as a sign of hope,” Emma writes. “Governments and tech companies looking to ensure the public has access to quality journalism should invest in accelerating this exciting trend.”

In Australia, the standoff between the government and Big Tech has largely benefited a handful of legacy media companies while leaving independents short-changed. As Emma notes, Canada must avoid repeating Australia’s mistakes.

This week in The Narwhal

‘Who would feel safe?’ Site C dam concerns build in downstream communities

Site C dam construction
By Sarah Cox

BC Hydro’s proposed fix for geotechnical problems at Site C will be the first of its kind. Read more.

Yukon First Nations say approving mineral exploration without a land use plan violates their rights

Tombstone Territorial Park.
By Julien Gignac

The proposed Antimony Creek quartz exploration project would be on Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun territories, including culturally important areas. Read more.  

‘Smoke and mirrors’: Indigenous groups, conservationists challenge report claiming B.C. mines have no impact on Alaska waters

Iskut River snakes between mountains in northwest B.C.
By Judith Lavoie
Critics raise concerns about joint B.C.-Alaska government report that had input from industry, saying the data collection methods were flawed and stakeholders weren’t adequately engaged. Read more.  

What we’re reading
The Walrus photo essay: Scenes from Canada’s Housing Crisis
New Yorker article: When the Kids Started Getting Sick
kid displeased gif
When you are not on board with a $5.3 billion price increase. Tell your friends they can up their skepticism meter by signing up for our newsletter.
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