UN Renews Call for Site C Dam Review to Protect National Park

June 26, 2017

The UN’s World Heritage Committee has once again demanded that the federal government conduct a proper assessment of the downstream impacts of British Columbia’s controversial Site C dam on Wood Buffalo National Park.

In addition, the committee has asked the Trudeau government to immediately implement recommendations to protect the park, home of the Peace-Athabasca delta — the largest inland freshwater delta in North America — from industrial development, including nearby oil sand mining projects.

The Mikisew Cree, which originally petitioned UNESCO to investigate growing threats to the park in 2016, support the recommendations of the committee.

“We’re still pushing Canada to address the issue as soon as possible,” said Melody Lapine, director of the Mikisew’s government and industry relations department.

Like many First Nations in northern Alberta, the Mikisew Cree have opposed the Site C dam because of the environmental impacts of previous dams built by BC Hydro on the Peace River, which feeds the Athabasca and the Delta.

Last October, UNESCO released a report warning that if the federal government continued to avoid its environmental responsibilities, Wood Buffalo National Park could soon be listed as a “world heritage site in danger” due to threats posed by energy development and nearby hydro dams.

It also asked the government to immediately conduct an “environmental and social impact assessment of the Site C project,” which threatens to alter the flow of water through the Peace Athabasca Delta in the heart of the 4.5-million-hectare park, located north of the tar sands.

A 2014 federal environmental assessment of Site C didn’t examine impacts on the delta because the project’s proponent, BC Hydro, said there would be “no detectable” effects.

The federal panel restated BC Hydro’s position “without providing a conceivable technical rationale for this conclusion,” said the UNESCO report.

“The time is now to finally give this project the scrutiny it deserves and to establish a basis for informed and balanced decision-making still currently lacking,” it said.

In a reply to the report, which presented the federal government as an environmental laggard, the Trudeau government promised to act on 16 of its 17 recommendations but rejected further assessment of the Site C hydropower project on the grounds that it lacked the legal means to do so.

But in a new draft decision that will be voted on this July in Poland, UNESCO has again demanded that Canada “assess and understand the potential impacts of the Site C hydropower project and of the various major dams on the Peace River on Wood Buffalo National Park” as well as study the potential “cumulative impacts of all developments in the region including hydroelectric dams, oil sands development, and mining.”

In other Site C developments, Premier Christy Clark has warned NDP leader John Horgan and Green leader Andrew Weaver in separate but identical letters that their request to delay the relocation of two homes below the dam pending a proper review of the project’s economics by the B.C. Utilities Commission would delay the project.

A year-long delay, in turn, could cost ratepayers $600 million, warned Clark.

She also asked whether or not Horgan and Weaver would like the government to issue a “tools down” request to BC Hydro “on other decisions that are essential to maintaining the budget and schedule of the Site C Clean Energy Project.”

Harry Swain, a former federal deputy minister and the chairman of a government environmental panel appointed to review the project in 2014, characterized the $600-million claim by Clark as ridiculous and misleading.

“The claim that the project is at the famous point of no return is disingenuous, and calls for the publication of the contracts to prove it. The best guess in print so far is [a] careful UBC study, which estimates that by June 30 we are still far from the point at which it would make sense to kill the project. Ms. Clark should provide evidence to back her claim.”

The Site C project has courted endless controversy and protests because it lacked a B.C. Utilities Commission assessment and will flood valuable agricultural land that serves as stable food supply insurance against climate change.

Critics have warned the mega-project will dramatically increase electrical prices for all of the province’s citizens, and that the power isn’t needed in the long term.

A 2014 joint federal and provincial environmental assessment panel couldn’t find any real need for the dam.

Its 473-page study pointedly concluded that the BC Hydro had “not fully demonstrated the need for the project on the timetable set forth… For a number of reasons set out in the text, the Panel cannot conclude that the power of Site C is needed on the schedule presented.”

To this day, critics describe the dam as a political vanity project for Clark, given the failure of her grandiose liquefied natural gas strategy.

Clark promised that industry would flood the province with jobs and riches, but a global methane glut and low prices has killed or stalled one proposed project after another.  [Tyee]


Teaser photo credit: Canada’s largest national park could soon be listed as a ‘world heritage site in danger,’ and a review of Site C is needed, warns UN.Photo by Agent Magenta, Creative Commons licensed.

Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the oil and gas industry for nearly 20 years and cares deeply about accuracy, government accountability, and cumulative impacts. He has won seven National Magazine Awards for his journalism since 1989 and top honours for investigative writing from the Association of Canadian Journalists.

Andrew has also published several books. The dramatic, Alberta-based Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in 2002. Pandemonium, which examines the impact of global trade on disease exchanges, received widespread national acclaim. The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, which considers the world’s largest energy project, was a national bestseller and won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and was listed as a finalist for the Grantham Prize for Excellence In Reporting on the Environment. Andrew's latest book, Empire of the Beetle, a startling look at pine beetles and the world’s most powerful landscape changer, was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Non-Fiction in 2011.

Tags: hydroelectric projects, Hydropower