Explainer: A brief history of the Site C hydroelectric dam

The project is delayed, over budget, and mired by controversy

An artist’s rendering of the Site C Dam renewable energy project. (Flickr/ Province of British Columbia)

What is perhaps the most controversial infrastructure project in B.C.’s history is forging ahead despite stiff opposition.

In a Feb. 26 press conference, Premier John Horgan remained steadfast in his NDP government’s goal to complete construction on the Site C dam, which was approved by the former Liberal government in 2014. Ceasing construction, Horgan said, would leave British Columbians on the hook for $10 billion, 4,500 construction workers laid off, and a $216 a year increase in ratepayers’ hydro bills.

“We’re going to complete the project because it’s in the best interest of British Columbia,” he said.

Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau has repeatedly voiced her opposition to Site C, citing rising costs. While the Liberal government broke ground on the project in 2015, Liberal energy critic Tom Shypitka blamed “NDP mismanagement” and “lack of oversight” for the project’s many challenges.

In 2017, Horgan said he supported pursuing the project due to not wanting to put taxpayers $4 billion in debt with no infrastructure project to show for it, later adding that the Liberals pushed Site C “past the point of no return.” He said that forgoing the project would threaten future housing, school and hospital investments, and affect B.C.’s credit score.

“It’s clear that Site C should never have been started,” Horgan said in 2017. “But we cannot punish British Columbians for those mistakes, and we can’t change the past. We can only make the best decision for the future.”

Situated 1,200 kilometres north of Vancouver, the Site C dam rests along the Peace River near Fort St. John. Operated by B.C. Hydro, the dam would provide 1,100 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power 450,000 homes each year, and provide clean energy for 100 years. BC Hydro said the dam is necessary to accommodate B.C.’s future energy demands, estimated to grow 40 per cent over the next two decades.

The original $8 billion dam has since doubled in price to $16 billion and is delayed by one year, with a forecasted operation date of 2025.

For many, construction of the Site C dam comes at a high environmental and cultural cost. The project will see the temporary rerouting of the Peace River, but most damning is the intentional flooding of 5,500 hectares of the Peace River Valley. Opponents of the dam fear this will cause the submersion of sacred and historical land, mercury-poisoned fish, and the loss of fragile ecosystems.

The project has seen setbacks caused by COVID-19, and there are concerns of Site C suffering from geotechnical issues.

In 2018 the Moberly First Nations filed a civil claim which alleged Site C and the other two existing dams on the Peace River infringed upon their Treaty 8 rights. This refers to a treaty signed in 1899 between First Nations in northeastern B.C., northern Alberta, and northwestern Saskatchewan, and the Canadian government to ensure the peaceful sharing of Treaty 8 lands and without forced interference. The treaty also ensures protecting their traditional way of life, including hunting and fishing rights. The 120 day-long trial is expected to commence in March 2022.

Chief Roland Willson of the Moberly First Nations penned an open letter and urged Horgan to immediately cease construction on the Site C project, and stated that they will not hesitate to go to court once more to receive an injunction to ensure this outcome, regardless of cost.

“You can reject the madness of ploughing ahead with this unnecessary, unsafe, and unlawful project. You can choose instead to immediately suspend the project,” reads the letter. “You can show Canada and the world that the only way to escape our colonial history of neglect and betrayal is to act boldly and honourably in the decisions that lie before us today.”