British Columbia

Site C, B.C. Hydro slapped with environmental non-compliance order over potential acid rock drainage

Eight months after an inspection of the hydroelectric project, B.C. Hydro has been ordered to comply with conditions of its environmental certificate as they relate to acid rock drainage and heavy metal leaching.

Problems at the $16 billion megaproject site were found in an August 2021 inspection

A dam under construction in British Columbia.
This photo from the fall of 2021 shows the progress being made on the construction of the $16 billion Site C dam. (B.C. Hydro/submitted)

British Columbia's Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) has issued an order against B.C. Hydro's Site C dam construction project for non-compliance with the acid rock drainage and metal leachate management conditions of its environmental certificate.

The order is dated April 21, 2022, and stems from an inspection eight months earlier in August 2021 that found problems related to the treatment of "excavated surfaces and fill areas that contain acid generating and potentially acid generating material."

The EAO says B.C. Hydro needs to encapsulate potentially harmful material in natural material within 30 days of exposure and "capture, monitor, and, if required, treat any surface runoff" prior to discharge.

The Site C hydroelectric dam is the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in B.C. history with a price tag of $16 billion. Construction started in 2015 on the Peace River near Fort St. John with an expected completion date of 2025. 

According to Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre, acid rock drainage is a major environmental problem.

"Exposed rock that has sulphur in it can form sulphuric acid and leach out heavy metals," he said. "It's a big deal and you have got to control it ... and it's a concerning thing that Hydro was not apparently doing this."

According to provincial policy and guidelines, acid rock drainage and metal leaching has led to "significant ecological damage, contaminated rivers, loss of aquatic life and multi-million dollar cleanup costs for industry and government." 

Usually associated with mining, acid rock drainage wiped out salmon runs on Tsolum and Jordan River on Vancouver Island, and made the old Britannia Mine at Britannia Beach one of the most seriously contaminated sites in North America, said Sandborn.

B.C. Hydro manager of public affairs Greg Alexis said the public utility was aware of the potential for acid producing rock at the Site C construction site.

"We will be meeting with the Environmental Assessment Office as quickly as possible to get a better understanding of the order," he said. "We're currently reviewing it right now, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that the sites are compliant to their specifications."

Alexis said the order is not expected to affect Site C's environmental certificate and that there was no evidence of harm caused to fish or other aquatic life as a result of the non-compliance.