British Columbia

Run-of-river power projects breach environmental standards: documents

Inspection reports and emails obtained by CBC News show B.C. government officials have raised concerns about environmental infractions during the construction of the rapidly growing number of run-of-river private power projects in the province.

Inspection reports and emails obtained by CBC News show B.C. government officials have raised concerns about environmental infractions during the construction of the rapidly growing number of run-of-river private power projects in the province.

In one email obtained by CBC News, a forestry official involved wrote, "I am becoming increasingly nervous about the lack of attention to the projects."

Last fall, inspectors from the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Forests and Range — who dubbed themselves "strike teams" — dropped in on the construction sites of several private run-of-river hydro projects.

The eventual reports by the strike team obtained by CBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request noted at four sites, the inspectors found several violations of the expected best management practices and the construction environmental management plan, including:

  • Sloppy construction that could damage streams.
  • Overcutting old-growth forest.
  • Inadequate sewage treatment at work camps.
  • Construction during bird breeding season.
  • Replanting with non-native species.

No one was charged or fined for the violations.

Violations not serious, says company

Other email obtained by CBC News shows that at the time of the inspections, the company behind the projects complained in several emails that the scrutiny was redundant and interfered with construction. 

When interviewed by CBC News, Jackie Hamilton, a vice-president with Cloudworks Energy, stood by her complaint.

"You're going to find the odd thing. I don't think they found serious issues, and of course any issues they found were immediately fixed," said Hamilton.

Hamilton even questioned the use of the term strike team, saying, "It implied that somehow we were doing something that needed disciplining."

But email also showed inspection officials had little faith in Kiewit, the construction company hired by Cloudworks to build the projects, saying it had a reputation for failing to comply with regulations.

Environmentalists concerned by findings

The projects were designed to generate electricity on remote creeks and rivers, without the large environmental footprint of conventional hydroelectric dams, by drawing power from seasonal flows.

But the projects and inspection results are also generating a lot of debate about their environmental impacts and benefits, particularly their effect on salmon runs, making them a key issue during the provincial election campaign.

Marvin Rosenau, a former senior fisheries biologist with the B.C. government, said while the issues may seem minor, they trigger alarm bells.

"It says to me they're cavalier about how they do business — 'We're a powerful industry there. The rules don't quite apply to us like everybody else. We can just go ahead and do whatever we want','" said Rosenau.

Gwen Barlee, a policy director with the Wilderness Committee, said the reports suggest the environmental impact of private power is being kept from the public.

"That's consistent with what the Wilderness Committee has heard, that there's corners being cut and it appears from the documents [acquired by CBC] there's been ongoing problems," said Barlee.

"I think it's kind of sad that we need a strike team for private power projects. It's a reflection on the lack of planning and the fact that these projects are coming on fast and furious," said Barlee.

Government officials involved in the strike teams say they can't discuss what they found until after next week's provincial election.

With files from Curt Petrovich