The Downside of The Boom: Fort St. John Mayor Worries Site C Dam Will Put Strain On Community

Lori Ackerman Mayor of Fort St. John

Projects like the $7.9-billion Site C dam cannot be built “on the shoulders of communities,” says the mayor of Fort St. John, B.C., a city located just seven kilometres from the proposed hydro dam and its 1,700-man work camps.

Mayor Lori Ackerman told DeSmog Canada her community is holding its breath waiting for the province’s decision on the project.

It is one of those things where we would just like the decision to be made so we know which way we’re going,” Ackerman said.

The provincial and federal governments are expected to issue a decision on the dam — the third on the Peace River — this fall.

In her January presentation to the joint review panel assessing the project, Ackerman was emphatic that  “empowering the province should not disempower Fort St. John.”

Many we spoke to felt the community would be run over by this project,” she said.  “Our community is at a saturation point for many of the services that our citizens want and need.”

In an interview with DeSmog Canada, Ackerman said residents recognize this dam has been on the books for decades, but “if you’re going to build it, don’t do it on the backs of the taxpayers here.”

Fort St. John is already struggling to manage the growth it has seen due to the fracking boom in B.C.’s natural gas fields — a boom that will only intensify if the province’s much-touted liquefied natural gas (LNG) export plans come to fruition. The city of 20,000 is already stretched for health care services, facing an affordable housing crisis and confronting an increase in drug and gang activity.

With an eight-year construction period and a potential for 1,700 workers living in camps near the city, the Site C dam has been the No. 1 issue for Fort St. John for the last couple of years, Ackerman said.

It’s seven kilometres from our downtown. In between the downtown and the dam will be a 236-acre area that they will mine for aggregate and a 500-man camp,” Ackerman explained. “So all of this: the traffic, the noise, the dust, having that kind of population sitting on our doorstep, is going to impact our services.”

In her presentation to the joint review panel, Ackerman noted the project will affect the quality of life and cost of living for Fort St. John residents.

Construction of Site C will be dependent to a large extent on the services and facilities provided by the City of Fort St. John,” she said.

Site C camps would bring 1,700 transient workers

In its report, the joint review panel noted Site C would pose “the usual health and social risks common to boom towns” — risks like the tragic beating death of Christopher Ball in downtown Fort St. John in July 2012.

Councillor Byron Stewart told the panel about that incident (both Ball and his two assailants lived in work camps) while highlighting his community’s concern that the transient workforce from the camps will put considerable strain on the city’s emergency resources and impact the safety of the community. 

While the Site C dam is projected to create about 10,000 person-years of direct employment during its eight-year construction period (or about 1,250 jobs per year), very few of those jobs would go to people in the Fort St. John area.

The low local unemployment rate would mean that most of the project workers would come from other parts of the province and Canada,” the joint review panel’s report read.

The report also states that “the local economic upside would largely provide the resources to deal with possible problems, including those related to health, education, and housing, especially if the arrangements BC Hydro is willing to make with local authorities can be concluded.”

BC Hydro estimates that Site C would result in a total of $40 million in tax revenues to local governments. But thus far, an arrangement between BC Hydro and the city of Fort St. John hasn't been reached.

We’re very actively having conversations with the proponent,” Ackerman said. “We want to ensure that we’re at the table with the province and BC Hydro when the decisions are made because we can be very much be a partner in this.”

Ackerman says she wants to ensure that whatever happens “the community is better off as a result of it.” That could mean everything from guarantees that local contractors will be hired to additional funding for policing.

Where will workers come from?

However, those types of promises are little solace to families who stand to lose their homes due to the dam construction. Esther and Poul Pedersen own a 160-acre farm above the proposed dam site and would have to move if the dam is built.

Esther and Poul Pedersen

Poul and Esther Pedersen on their land overlooking the Peace River. Photo: Emma Gilchrist.

They’re taking bids for work camps like it’s already been approved,” Poul said. “I’d like to know where they’re going to find the workers. There’s a shortage of workers already. Are they going to be bringing migrant workers over?”

Esther is concerned the projected positive economic impacts for Fort St. John won’t materialize.

The workers will just fly in and fly out,” she said. “The only places that will be busy are the airports and the bars and the drunk tank.”

Fort St. John businessman Bob Fedderly echoed those concerns in an interview with Common Sense Canadian. 

Camps aren’t the camps that they used to be,” he said. “It’s all done from outside, so when you start looking at the real spin-offs to the project, if you tear it apart one item at a time, are the spin-offs really there? Or are they cost items, lost opportunities to existing businesses?”