BC Hydro facing federal order, heavy fines for Site C sediment and erosion problems
by Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, January 5, 2017
BC Hydro is facing a federal order as early as Friday and potential fines of up to $400,000 due to erosion and sediment problems at the $9-billion Site C dam project in the province’s northeast.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has issued Hydro with a “notice of intent” to proceed with enforcement action unless the provincial Crown corporation provides assurances that problems are being addressed.
Based on Hydro’s response, the federal agency may amend, rescind or issue the order, which carries potential maximum summary fines of $200,000 on first offence and $400,000 on subsequent offences. The fines can apply for every day that Hydro is not in compliance with the environmental conditions authorizing the project.
In the federal documents, senior enforcement officer Nicolas Courville stated that the 1,100-megawatt Site C project was inspected on Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, 2016, at three sites — Moberly River construction bridge, right bank drainage tunnel, and right bank cofferdam.
The inspection discovered there were “no erosion and sediment contingency supplies located within the laydown or work areas” of the sites as required by the three Environmental Protection Plans. Hydro referred inspectors to a central contingency supplies site, but it was deemed inadequate for one site, much less all three, the documents read.
Hydro released a copy of its letter late Thursday, but Ottawa’s response to it is not yet known.
Greg Scarborough, manager of environmental compliance for Site C, writes that Hydro is “very concerned” about the federal inspection findings and “has implemented measures to return into compliance.”
Hydro is providing a long list of contingency supplies at the project, including silt fencing with stakes, crushed gravel, sand bags, weed-free straw bales, flagging tape, plastic sheeting, and geotextile fabrics.
Postmedia News revealed on Wednesday that an “inspection record” posted by the provincial Environmental Assessment Office concluded that Hydro’s repeated non-compliance with sediment and erosion issues at Site C had “caused adverse effects to water quality and fish habitat” on the Peace and Moberly river systems.
The inspection documents detail problems such as: large faces of exposed soil leading into a ravine with little or no effort to stop erosion; extremely turbid water; sediment from landslides dumped directly into the Moberly River; sediment fences that don’t work; construction of a causeway over the Moberly River with no culverts or drainage structures in the flood channels; sediments entering the Peace River because of a washed-out culvert; significant ditch erosion.
EAO spokesman David Karn determined that “warnings were the appropriate level of enforcement” for the non-compliances related to sediment and erosion.
Hydro was also issued provincial enforcement orders related to failure to monitor water quality in potentially affected wells and failure to protect amphibians.
NDP environment critic George Heyman said Thursday that Premier Christy Clark’s vow in January last year to push the Site C project “past the point of no return” is the root cause of Hydro’s ongoing environmental record.
“You can’t separate BC Hydro from Christy Clark’s government,” he said. “There are concerns about erosion, how this is affecting not only the environment, but the cost of the project.” He noted that Hydro received a variance last year to move amphibians without a permit when the Wildlife Act provided for no such variance.
The NDP has promised to submit the Site C project to the B.C. Utilities Commission for scrutiny, including on the question of need and whether cancellation is a viable option based on the amount of work done and any financial commitments of contracts already signed, Heyman said. This year’s provincial election is May 9.
Environment Minister Mary Polak declined to be interviewed.
Development of the Site C dam is well underway near Fort St. John, including extensive road building, clearcutting and construction of buildings to house workers.
Mike Pearson, an Agassiz consulting biologist who has written federal recovery plans for endangered fish, explained that suspended sediment in high concentrations can directly impact fish by clogging and wearing away at gills. The more “lasting, widespread and inescapable (for fish) damage is in smothered spawning beds, loss of invertebrate food supply, infilling of pools etc.,” he added.
Federal fisheries spokesperson Janine Malikian said that “DFO has determined that no serious harm to fish has occurred as a result of the incidents, and will not be conducting an investigation.”
The Vancouver Sun reported last March that Fisheries and Oceans Canada had not laid a single charge of damaging fish habitat, despite almost 1,900 complaints nation-wide, since controversial government changes to the federal Fisheries Act came into effect two a half years earlier.
The Conservatives changed the act from a prohibition on harmful alteration or destruction of fish habitat to a prohibition on activities resulting in serious harm to the habitat of fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery or that support those fisheries. Harm includes the death of fish or any permanent alteration or destruction of fish habitat.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is engaged in a public review of the Fisheries Act. A Parliamentary standing committee has been conducting its own review since last fall.
The Office of the Auditor General released a report in 2011 that criticized the provincial environmental assessment process for failing to oversee approved projects, which led to creation of an EAO compliance and enforcement arm.