Site C dam: B.C. has right to approve project, court told

The B.C. government says it had full authority to approve the proposed Site C dam, countering claims from ranchers and farmers in the area that the consent broke the law.

Province is battling opponents in court who say approval broke the law

An artist's rendering shows how the Peace River's Site C dam would appear after completion. (BC Hydro)

The B.C. government says it had the full authority to issue environmental approval for the proposed Site C dam, countering assertions from a group of ranchers and farmers in the area that the consent broke the law.

Representing the province in B.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday, lawyer David Cowie said it was the clear prerogative of the ministers to disregard a portion of the recommendations that came out of a provincial-federal joint review panel.

The panel held hearings and spent three years assessing environmental concerns around the $8.8-billion hydroelectric project to be built by Crown utility BC Hydro along the Peace River.

"Recommendations are advisory in nature," said Cowie, who described the environmental assessment process as a planning tool that focuses on identifying and mitigating a project's adverse impacts.

"Ultimate decision-making power lies with the ministers."

The Peace Valley Landowner Association is asking the court to quash the government's decision to approve the dam.

The mega project would see more than 5,500 hectares of land along the Peace River flooded to create an 83-kilometre-long reservoir.

Process flawed, opponents argue

The landowner group's lawyer MaegenGiltrow argued in court on Monday that the environmental assessment process was flawed.

Ken Boon, president of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, hopes court challenges will stop the Site C dam from flooding his land. (CBC)

She said the government erred when it opted to ignore a number of recommendations coming out of the review panel that related to assessing total costs, alternative options and the overall need for the project.

She cited Environment Minister Mary Polak's dismissal of the recommendations as falling outside the scope of the panel's mandate.

"A decision cannot be reasonable if the decision-maker does not consider the factors the statute requires them to," she said, referencing a responsibility to review the recommendations as laid out in the Environmental Assessment Act.

Cowie called Giltrow's argument "very capable and genius," but said that it unfairly undermines the latitude of a minister's discretion.

Ministers are entitled to weigh the non-binding findings of an advisory body as they see fit and are ultimately accountable to the democratic process, he said.

Summer construction scheduled

On Monday, Energy Minister Bill Bennett waded into the case, reaffirming his government's commitment to start work on the dam by summer.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark says the Site C dam will ensure B.C.'s energy self-sufficiency for the next 100 years at a reliable cost to the taxpayer. (CBC)

Opposition has dogged the long-range energy project over the decades, but that resistance has heightened in the past seven years since the project has been formally in the works.

This legal challenge is the first of seven expected over the coming months against both the provincial and federal governments from various groups opposed to Site C.

Treaty 8 First Nations are scheduled to appear in court with similar challenges against the province on Thursday.

When completed in nine years' time, Site C is anticipated to produce about 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity annually, which is enough to power nearly half a million homes.

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