Nova Scotia

Work again halted on overbudget, much-delayed N.S. Power hydro dam project

Nova Scotia Power says it has halted repair work at its Gaspereau hydro dam after Mi'kmaw leaders withdrew support for the refurbishment, which uncovered one of the largest Indigenous archeological finds in Nova Scotia history.

Repair work on Gaspereau dam on pause after Mi'kmaw leaders withdrew support, company says

Nova Scotia Power says it has halted repair work at its Gaspereau hydro dam after Mi'kmaw leaders withdrew support for the refurbishment. (CBC)

Nova Scotia Power says it has halted repair work at its Gaspereau hydro dam after Mi'kmaw leaders withdrew support for the refurbishment, which uncovered one of the largest Indigenous archeological finds in Nova Scotia history.

The delay adds more uncertainty to the project near Kentville, N.S., that is already 14 years late and 421 per cent over budget. More than 300,000 artifacts have been identified at 21 locations in the area.

The company said Mi'kmaw leaders have twice agreed to the project design after more than a decade of extensive consultation, engagement and accommodation.

News of the stoppage was contained in a project status update filed Feb. 4 by the company with the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.

Nova Scotia Power said in the update an "archeological mitigation program" began in May 2021, but around September the company was informed by the Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office that the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs "were no longer supportive of the project."

The company did not explain why the assembly of chiefs had taken this position. It did say after stabilizing the site and protecting "archeological resources," work stopped in December.

Meeting to understand concerns

"Nova Scotia Power will continue to meet with Mi'kmaw leadership to understand their concerns regarding the Gaspereau site and determine how the concerns can be addressed," the company said in its filings.

"Nova Scotia Power will provide a further update on the status of the project prior to resuming work or as new information becomes available."

The assembly of chiefs said in a statement it has not "officially communicated" withdrawal of support and it continues to talk with the company.

Nova Scotia Power declined to elaborate.

In evidence submitted to the board, Nova Scotia Power has detailed dozens of actions it has taken to accommodate concerns since it was granted approval for the project.

Those include redesigning the dam to minimize archeological impacts and protect potential burial sites, paying for an independent engineering study at the request of the assembly of chiefs and halting work for two years at the assembly's request.

It said the assembly twice agreed — in 2016 and 2019 — to the company's design for the dam project.

Ratepayers on the hook

Meanwhile, ratepayers are on the hook whatever happens.

When the "Gaspereau Dam Safety Remedial Works" project was approved in 2007 the cost was $4.4 million. Refurbishment of the lake dams and spillways was needed to meet Canadian Dam Association Safety guidelines.

By 2020, Nova Scotia Power said the cost had risen to $22.7 million and it successfully applied to charge ratepayers $18 million for the "overspend."

"The archeological discoveries, [Mi'kmaw] engagement, and revisions to dam designs — which led to the requirement to seek authorization to overspend on this project — are unprecedented," Nova Scotia Power told regulators.

The company said the find was "one of the biggest assemblages of [Mi'kmaw] pre-contact artifacts recovered in Nova Scotian history."

It said refurbishment is the least expensive option for ratepayers and estimated the cost of decommissioning the dam at $41 million.

Looking for a resolution

After learning that work had stopped at Gaspereau Lake, on Monday the review board ordered the company to report on all spending since it authorized the overspending.

"This information is concerning to the board, and as the letter was the first update since the approval, the board directs N.S. Power to provide a report on all spending on this project since Nov. 30, 2019," the board said.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs did not explain its actions in a statement.

"We have not officially communicated that we have withdrawn support on the Gaspereau dam project and we remain in discussion with Nova Scotia Power," said Chief Sidney Peters, co-chair for the assembly. 

"The Gaspereau Lake area holds great archeological and historical significance for the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia and we want to ensure that our voice is heard and that our cultural resources are preserved and protected."

The Nova Scotia government has been closely involved in the project, including through Crown consultation with the Mi'kmaq.

The Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage issued 28 permits for work on the Gaspereau Lake dam between 2007 and 2021. All have been reported and closed, with the exception of two which the department is awaiting reports on.

It is also trying to assist in resolving the disagreement.

"The province is aware of the situation of the Gaspereau Lake dam project and is consulting with the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia," said Mikaela Etchegary, a communications adviser with the department. "We are committed to continuing those consultations and maintaining respectful discussions to understand [Mi'kmaw] interests."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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