British Columbia

B.C. asks utilities commission to review $8.8-billion Site C dam megaproject

British Columbia's New Democrat government has asked the province's utilities commission to review the $8.8-billion Site C dam, throwing into doubt one of former premier Christy Clark's major accomplishments.

Commission asked to confirm if BC Hydro on target to complete project on budget and by 2024

A stand of trees removed from what used to be the Boons' property, before it was expropriated by BC Hydro. To their right are yellow stakes, purchased by people around the world to show their opposition to the Site C dam. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

British Columbia's New Democrat government has asked the province's utilities commission to review the $8.8-billion Site C dam, throwing into doubt one of former premier Christy Clark's major accomplishments.

Energy Minister Michelle Mungall says the regulator will be tasked with determining the economic viability of the megaproject, with interim results in six weeks and a final report in three months.

Mungall says the commission has been asked to confirm whether BC Hydro is on target to complete Site C on budget and by 2024, and provide advice on whether to proceed, suspend or terminate it.

David Morton, CEO of the B.C. Utilities Commission, emphasized the review will only look at the economic viability of the project and not include other considerations like environmental damage, First Nations treaty rights and broader social issues.

"We would like to hear any comments or additional evidence that people have on the specific scope of the report which is the economic impact to BC Hydro ratepayers," he said.

"We haven't been asked to look at anything more specific than that so we therefore wouldn't be able to include any other issues in the report."

The NDP campaigned on sending the project to the commission, a practice that was once standard in B.C., before the previous Liberal government's clean energy laws allowed some major projects to bypass the regulatory agency.

The dam is two years into construction and employs more than 2,200 people in northeastern B.C., and former BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald has warned that a one-year delay would cost $630 million.

It would be the third dam on the Peace River, flooding an 83-kilometre stretch of valley, and has faced fierce opposition from local First Nations, landowners and farmers.

Part of the Peace River valley scheduled to be flooded in order to build the Site C dam in northeastern British Columbia. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

'We're quite hopeful'

One of those landowners, Ken Boon, is a longtime critic of the Site C project and has battled the government in multiple court challenges over the dam. 

"We're very happy to see this project finally going to the [utilities commission]," Boon said. "It's stunning that the former government didn't do exactly this before starting the project."

Boon's home is in Bear Flats and his house was expropriated by BC Hydro late last year. There have been a number of extensions to the deadline ordering him and his wife Arlene to vacate.

"We're definitely resting a lot easier knowing this has taken place. It's still a little bit on pins and needles, knowing it will ultimately come down to a decision by government, but it's a stay of execution if nothing else." 

2,400 working on the dam today

Construction will continue while the review is underway, but that provides little solace to the 2,400 people working on the project, said Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Business Association.

"They've got to be thinking that six months from now they may not have a job," he said.

"Site C was reviewed for three years by an independent panel. BC Hydro spent a decade planning for the project. The provincial and federal levels of government both approved the project. It's now 20 per cent complete."

However, environmental group Sierra Club BC applauded the government's decision, saying it was good news for ratepayers.

"The reality is that we don't need Site C power, it's hideously expensive and inevitable cost overruns would be paid for by B.C. ratepayers, and more environmentally and economically viable alternatives are available today."

With files from Andrew Kurjata and The Early Edition.