‘Industrialization of the Wilderness’: Wade Davis on the Northwest Transmission Line

An ugly thread of misspent taxpayer dollars, environmental destruction and conflict-of-interest — backed by a government beholden to the mining industry — runs along the recently completed Northwest Transmission Line, charges acclaimed explorer and scholar Wade Davis.

The $716-million transmission line, budgeted in 2010 at $404-million, snakes 344 kilometres into B.C.’s wilderness, from north of Terrace to Bob Quinn Lake, and, to the alarm of downstream Southeast Alaska residents, the line is opening the area to mining in the headwaters of vital salmon-bearing rivers.

Those concerns have grown exponentially since the Mount Polley tailings dam collapsed in August 2014, sending 24-million cubic metres of toxic debris flowing into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, and groups in B.C. and Alaska are warning that a Mount Polley-type disaster in the area known as the Sacred Headwaters, where acidity is likely to be high, would wipe out the multi-billion dollar fishing and tourism industries on both sides of the border.

Davis, a writer, former explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, anthropology professor and B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of B.C., is appalled at the B.C. government’s decision to encourage mining in the ecologically rich northwest corner of the province and at the lack of government oversight as the pricey Northwest Transmission Line was carved through the wilderness.

It’s industrialization of the wilderness. It’s the story of politicians more concerned about the next election than the next generation,” he said.

Davis, who sometimes visits 30 countries a year, loves the wild beauty of B.C.’s northwest corner, which has the world’s largest population of stone sheep, grizzly bears, caribou and wolves.

It’s not for nothing that it is called the Serengeti of Canada,” he said.

A Sweet Deal for Imperial Metals

All of which makes it inexplicable that the government would forego future high-end tourism opportunities by encouraging mining on a site such as Todagin Mountain where the Red Chris mine, owned by Imperial Metals — the same company that owns the Mount Polley mine— opened in February, he said.

An Energy and Mines Ministry spokesman, responding to questions by e-mail, said the province, Imperial Metals and Tahltan Nation — which approved a co-management agreement with the company in April — have been working to develop wildlife management strategies “to take care of this resource for future generations.”

That does not satisfy Davis, who owns the closest private property to the $650-million Red Chris copper and gold mine and believes the Liberal government has bulldozed ahead with the power line without a proper review and despite public concerns.

The government was 100 per cent engaged in an effort to make this happen to the point of deceiving the Canadian people and certainly squandering their tax revenue,” he said, questioning the influence of party fundraisers.

Murray Edwards, controlling shareholder of Imperial Metals Corp. — a major donor to the B.C. Liberals — organized a $1-million fundraiser at the Calgary Petroleum Club for Premier Christy Clark shortly before the last election.

B.C. Government Committed to Mining Expansion

It is expected that mining companies will push for concessions, but it is also expected that the government will ask the important questions to minimize environmental damage, said Davis, who has frequently worked with industry and says he has no objection to responsible mining.

But, here we have a government that is ideologically committed to making (Red Chris) go ahead,” said Davis, who speculates that Imperial Metals was given an easy ride to avoid the perception of a power line to nowhere.

Financial experts believe it was essential for Imperial Metals to get cash flow from Red Chris as soon as possible because Mount Polley remained closed for nearly one year and cleanup costs are estimated at between $67-million and $100-million. In May, the company reported a loss of $33.4 million during the first three months of the year.

The Northwest Transmission Line was billed by government as the engine that would drive economic development in the province’s northwest by powering up revenue-generating mining operations in the richly mineralized area.

So far, Red Chris is the only mine drawing power from the line. After a provincial review, the mine received provincial approval in June to operate the tailings storage pond, which has the same unlined earth and rock dam design as Mount Polley.

Red Chris is likely to be followed by Seabridge Gold’s Kerr-Sulpherets-Mitchell (KSM) mine, in the Unuk River headwaters, which will be one of the world’s largest open-pit copper and gold mines. KSM has received federal and provincial approval and is tying up funding for the $5.3-billion project while obtaining permits. The mine is expected to employ more than 1,000 people for 50 years.

The transmission line is also bringing power to the Tahltan community of Iskut, whose 350 residents previously relied on diesel, and to the $725-million, 195-megawatt AltaGas Forrest Kerr run-of-river independent power project.

AltaGas contributed $180-million of the cost and Imperial Metals contributed $69 million of the $209 million cost to build the Iskut extension. BC Hydro then purchased the extension for about $52 million.

Davis charges that the environmental insensitivities of Imperial Metals were revealed during the extension’s construction when the company clearcut to the edge of the scenic Stewart-Cassiar Highway, instead of leaving a buffer zone of trees as shown in the original plans.

Cutting trees adjacent to the highway is allowed and the company had all necessary permits, according to the ministry.

As much as possible, the cutting is contained within the right-of-way of the highway to reduce impact to the visual quality of the surrounding landscape. In some instances, due to geotechnical and safety concerns (i.e. slope stability,) the power lines are located away from the highway,” said the ministry spokesman.

Taxpayers on the Hook?

The Iskut project enabled the province to obtain $130 million from the federal Green Infrastructure Fund. But, according to Davis, that is something that should make taxpayers uneasy when they look at the bill of almost $400,000 per resident and he questions labelling the project as green when, during construction, the equivalent of 14,000 logging truckloads of wood were burned.

BC Hydro has said the timber was burned because it was marginal and the long distance to roads and markets made selling it uneconomical.

 A Mining Association of B.C. study estimates the transmission line will attract $15-billion in mining investment, 10,000 jobs and $300 million in annual tax revenue.

However, energy economics expert Marvin Shaffer, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, would like British Columbians to look carefully at those figures, especially as the province decided to go ahead with the project without a B.C. Utilities Commission review.

The rate policy in B.C. effectively subsidizes new mines and this was a line that was heavily subsidized,” he said.

Metal mines require large amounts of electricity. The standard industrial rate charged in B.C. is $40 to $50 per megawatt hour, but the draw on power means more power sources are needed and producing electricity from new sources, such as the Site C dam, will cost about $90 per megawatt hour, Shaffer said.

An individual mine will consume up to 10 per cent of the output of Site C and the price doesn’t cover even half the cost of a new supply,” he said.

The government argues that it is economic development, so then you have to ask: what are the benefits in subsidizing mining developments?”

Many of the jobs are likely to go to people living outside the province, Shaffer said.

There might be some stimulus, but it’s not as if it’s going to be employing a lot of British Columbians who would otherwise be unemployed,” he said.

Image Credit: BC Hydro