Top-level scientists and academics from across Canada are calling on the federal government to put the brakes on construction of the Site C dam and, in an unusual move, the call is being supported by the Royal Society of Canada.
A stinging criticism of the assessment process, lack of consideration for First Nations concerns and the B.C. government’s decision to start construction despite ongoing court cases, was released at an Ottawa news conference Tuesday with a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a statement asking that the federal government not issue any more permits for the hydroelectric mega-project until there have been additional reviews and the courts have decided on First Nations court cases.
A “Statement of Concern” signed by 250 scientists and academics, amounting to a Who’s-Who of Canadian academia, asks that the B.C. government submit the project for review by the B.C. Utilities Commission, something suggested by Joint Review Panel, but rejected by the provincial government.
There should also be a review by the Department of Justice to analyze whether the project infringes on aboriginal and treaty rights, the statement says.
“Based on evidence raised across our many disciplines, the undersigned scholars have concluded that there were significant gaps and inadequacies in the regulatory review and environmental assessment process for the Site C Project,” says the statement.
“Our assessment is that this process did not accord with the commitments of both the federal and provincial government to reconciliation with, and legal obligations to First Nations, protection of the environment and evidence-based decision making with scientific integrity.”
Work — including clearing of old-growth forest in the surrounding area, construction of a work camp and letting of contracts, which the B.C. government says are worth billions of dollars — has already started on the dam that will flood the Peace River valley to create an 83-kilometre reservoir at a cost of almost $9-billion.
Karen Bakker, Canada research chair in water governance at the University of British Columbia, said Site C is a test of the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation with First Nations and science-based decision making.
“We truly believe this is a bellwether,” Bakker said.
“Will they actually live up to the commitments they have made to evidence-based decision-making with scientific integrity and also to reconciliation with First Nations?” she asked.
Gordon Christie, a UBC law professor specializing in indigenous legal studies, said at the news conference that the lawsuits might take months or years to wend their way through the courts and yet, in the meantime, the province is forging ahead with construction.
“Courts have asked the federal and provincial governments of Canada to act honourably and to demonstrate something known as the honour of the Crown and, no matter what your notion of honour might be, this is clearly dishonourable conduct,” he said
The decision to go ahead appears to be at odds with the federal government’s recent support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People that requires informed consent from aboriginal people before projects on their land are approved, said the academics.
The significant environmental effects of the dam are unprecedented in the history of environmental assessment in Canada, Bakker said.
“Site C has 40 per cent of the total adverse environmental effects ever identified [in Canadian environmental assessments] since 1992, “ she said.
“We are calling on the government to explain why the unprecedented imposition of these very severe environmental effects would be justified by Site C — a project whose electricity output is currently unnecessary and for which less damaging alternatives exist.”
The Joint Review Panel concluded that the power will probably not be needed for decades and, with no demand within B.C. for the power, lately the province has been looking at selling Site C power to Alberta.
Federal fisheries and transportation permits have not yet been issued and Bakker said in an interview with DeSmog Canada that representatives of the group have approached ministries dealing with aboriginal affairs, fisheries, environment and justice and are hoping to meet with at least two ministers in the near future.
The group is also planning to release another paper, dealing with provincial Site C issues, she said.
It is rare for the Royal Society to speak out and it is the first time in several decades that the society has become involved in such a specific issue, Bakker said.
In a letter to Trudeau, Royal Society president Maryse Lassonde questioned why a project of such scope was not assessed by the B.C. Utilities Commission.
“That should have been a priority. Why did the B.C. legislature pass an act to prevent this essential review?” Lassonde asked.
“This failure to subject the project to rigorous scrutiny raises serious questions about whether the project should proceed until such time as a more thorough review is undertaken,” she wrote.
The academic and scientific support delighted Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president and an outspoken critic of Site C.
“This is great news. It’s very encouraging,” he said in an interview.
Site C can still be stopped, despite the provincial rush to get the project underway, Phillip said.
“It can be stopped if enough people speak out against this ill-conceived, unwanted and absolutely unnecessary project,” he said.
In February Site C was condemned by a group of non-profit agencies including Amnesty International Canada, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Ecojustice and Greenpeace Canada.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities has also called for Site C to be reviewed by the B.C. Utilities Commission.
The provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines did not respond to questions in time for publication.
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Image: Construction for the Site C dam in the Peace River valley. Photo: Garth Lenz