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Site C dam report says benefits of project are clear, but no yes or no answer

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VANCOUVER - An $8-billion hydroelectric dam proposed by British Columbia's Crown utility would cause significant adverse effects on the environment and wildlife, as well as aboriginals, farmers and other users of the Peace River valley, says a report by the joint review panel weighing the project.

And BC Hydro has not demonstrated the need for the Site C dam in northeastern B.C. on the timetable it set out, said the panel appointed by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

But the benefits are clear and the alternatives, few, the panel said in a 471-page report made public on Thursday.

"Site C is not an ordinary project. At $7.9 billion, it might be the largest provincial public expenditure of the next 20 years," it said.

The panel gave no clear yes or no answer, but said B.C. will need new energy and new capacity at some point. The dam on the Peace River would provide a large amount of inexpensive power, low in greenhouse gas emissions, it said.

"Site C would seem cheap, one day," the report said. "But the project would be accompanied by significant environmental and social costs, and the costs would not have to be endured by those who benefit.

"These losses will be borne by the people of the (Peace River Valley), some of whom say that there is no possible compensation."

Among the recommendations, the panel said the dam proposal should be referred to the B.C. Utilities Commission for a detailed examination of project costs. The provincial government had exempted the project from review by the independent regulator, which rejected a previous incarnation.

"We're pleased that the panel has confirmed that there will be a long-term need for the new energy and capacity that the Site C project would provide," said Dave Conway, spokesman for BC Hydro.

"I think it's a signal that, generally, the panel has agreed with the work that we have done to date, our suggested mitigation plans and the investigation work, and have added to that with their recommendations."

The report was delivered earlier this week to the federal environment minister and the head of the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office. Both governments have six months to make a final decision.

The dam would be the third on the Peace River. It would create a 9,330-hectare reservoir along 83 kilometres of the river, flooding about 5,550 hectares of land.

The dam would generate an estimated 1,100 megawatts of capacity — or enough to power the equivalent of 450,000 homes a year.

Faisal Moola, from the David Suzuki Foundation, said the panel recognized the cumulative impact of resource development in the region.

"Our research shows a perfect storm of industrial activities and this massive hydro project may be the straw that breaks the camel's back," he said in a statement.

The river already has two huge dams — the WAC Bennett and the Peace Canyon. The region has 16,267 oil and gas well sites and 8,517 petroleum and natural gas facilities. It would also be the heart of the province's liquefied natural gas industry.

"We hope that government takes cumulative impacts into account when it decides whether to proceed with this project," Moola said.

Treaty 8 Tribal Chief Liz Logan said she felt the panel heard the concerns of area First Nations.

"It's not necessarily a clear yes or a clear no, but we're happy that they did say there were significant impacts to our way of life," Logan said.

"That opens the door for us to continue to push the alternatives.... Let's look at natural gas. Let's look at wind. Let's look a geothermal."

Chief Marvin Yahey of the Blueberry River First Nations said the Crown must address the "serious issues" addressed in the report before proceeding with the dam.

"The joint review panel's Report confirms what our people are experiencing every day: the cumulative effects of resource development are placing enormous stress on our lands," said Yahey.

"The dam, combined with past, present and future development, would mean even more harm to the lands and waters on which our treaty rights depend."

Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist and Green member of the B.C. legislature, said there are shortcomings in the province's overall energy policy.

"As the report clearly stated, geothermal and other renewable sources should be explored," Weaver said. "This approach would be less damaging to the environment and, distributed around B.C."

Provincial Energy Minister Bill Bennett said, if approved, construction could begin in January 2015. The completion date would be 2024.

"Site C is not about providing power tomorrow or the next day or the next year or the year after that," he said.

"We don't need the electricity today, tomorrow or the next year or five years from now. But we're pretty darn sure we're going to need it 10 years from now when the project, if it's approved, would be available to us."

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