British Columbia

Cost of Site C dam spiralling amid construction challenges, says open letter urging halt to project

In a letter addressed to NDP Leader John Horgan, more than a dozen self-described "prominent British Columbians" say the project is years away from completion, "mired" in potentially unfixable problems and is facing potentially "horrendous" cost over-runs.

Former CEOs, cabinet ministers, First Nations leaders and scientists say project 'mired' in problems

The letter addressed to the government says the total cost of the SIte C dam project is now estimated to be $12 billion. (Submitted by B.C. Hydro)

A group of concerned British Columbians is calling on the provincial government to stop construction on the Site C dam project until geotechnical issues are resolved.

In a letter addressed to NDP Leader John Horgan, more than a dozen self-described "prominent British Columbians" say the project is years away from completion, "mired" in potentially unfixable problems and is facing potentially "horrendous" cost over-runs.

The group includes First Nations leaders, scientists, environmentalists, former provincial and federal cabinet ministers and the past CEOs of the Insurance Corporation of B.C. and BC Hydro.

They're asking for the province to appoint an independent team of three experts to assess all known geotechnical problems and determine whether they can be fixed, and at what cost. 

They say it would be "extremely premature" to rule out cancelling the project altogether, and that that would be equivalent to "handing the project a blank cheque."

"The prudent course of action — one that respects Indigenous and Treaty rights as well as the interests of all taxpayers and hydro ratepayers — is to immediately suspend all construction activities at the project," including river diversion, the letter says.

The letter is signed by names including former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen, environmental activist David Suzuki, former ICBC CEO Robyn Allan, and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

The group is asking Horgan to direct Peter Milburn, special advisor on the project, to do three things while construction is suspended:

The first is to appoint an independent panel of three professionals to thoroughly assess all known geotechnical problems at Site C. They ask that the panel determine whether the issues can be resolved, what would be required to ensure the structural integrity, and the health and safety of communities downstream, and the costs of of fixing the issues. 

The second is to release all information prepared by the panel to the public; and the third is to publish a full accounting of all costs incurred to date at Site C and an estimate of what it would cost to complete the project.

"With your government and governments around the world dealing with the harsh economic realities imposed on society by the global COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time to be digging an even deeper financial hole on a costly project that may, given proper independent scrutiny, be found to be so structurally unsound as to be too risky to complete," the letter says.

'Geological risk' flagged in 2019 report

In December 2019, an update on the project filed to the B.C. Utilities Commission from BC Hydro flagged a "geological risk" on the right bank of the dam site that would require extra foundation work.

BC Hydro president and CEO Chris O'Riley reported those foundation enhancement costs were anticipated to be "more substantial than initially expected."

In July, BC Hydro reported it had "serious concerns" about the project due to the impact of COVID-19 and other challenges.

O'Riley said work had been reduced about 50 per cent and other issues have led to concerns regarding schedule, scope and budget of the project.

Prior to the pandemic, O'Riley said the $10-billion project remained on schedule for the first generating unit to begin service in late 2023 with a final in-service date of 2024.

That date is now up in the air, he said, because work had to be halted during the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest letter addressed to the government says the total costs are now estimated to be $12 billion.

First Nations' challenge

When the federal and provincial governments issued its environmental assessment certificate in 2014, B.C. forest and environment ministers said the project was in the public interest and that the benefits outweighed the risks of significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.

The dam would flood parts of the traditional territory of the Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations.

Both First Nations filed a civil claim against the government over the project in 2018, arguing it violated their rights set out in Treaty 8 and that the flooding breaks a promise from the Crown to protect their way of life.

The Prophet River First Nation pulled out of the lawsuit in August after the B.C. government announced it had reached two legal agreements with the nation.

Horgan says he understands concerns

Speaking to CBC's The Early Edition on Monday morning, Horgan said he was aware of the letter but had not yet "digested the contents."

Horgan said he wasn't "enthusiastic" about the project, but said the previous government took it "past the point of no return."

Horgan says he can't predict the outcome of Milburn's review, but said clean energy will be "indispensable" to B.C.'s long-term climate plan.

"I absolutely understand the concerns of the community, but we were faced with a situation that was created by the B.C. Liberals and did our best to manage it in the public interest," Horgan said.