Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bipole move creates double tragedy

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Manitoba Hydro has budgeted $90 million to compensate west-side landowners for the imposition of Bipole III on their lands and landscape. How much, you might ask, was offered to the 16 isolated east-side First Nations to string Bipole III across their "traditional" lands and landscapes?

Zilch, zip, zero.

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And therein lies the real story of the wrongheaded NDP decision to move Bipole III from the east side to the west side -- and it is a story of tragedy.

To be sure, it also is a breathtaking waste of $1 billion in additional costs to string the bipole an extra 480 kilometres while making the entire electrical system less efficient and less secure than it should be.

Less efficient because more electricity leaks from lines the longer they are. The leakage means that less carbon will be offset by the west route than the east route. Less secure (remember, that's the reason this all started in the first place) because the separation between existing bipoles and the new one will be the minimum separation, and at that it will be in a tornado zone.

The government claims this is about the environment but it isn't. There is more environmental destruction on the west side than on the east side, and more risk and hazard to life (including human life) on the west side. If this were about the environment, then the $1 billion would be better spent building municipal waste and water treatment plants and saving our inland oceans.

But these considerations are considerations of folly, not tragedy.

Have you ever been up the east side? It's not pristine, as the defenders of folly insist. To be sure, it's mostly trackless wilderness unfit for human habitation, at least in the modern era, where living is about more than subsistence for the 16,000 mostly aboriginal people who live there.

It has a beauty, to be sure, in the summer. And no doubt one day it will attract a modest eco-tourism -- wilderness junkies who travel provisioned and will not be making anyone rich even in communities like Bloodvein, which has a river running through it.

What you find every where are incredible levels of poverty, and housing that for the most part is inadequate -- if not unfit -- for habitation.

Unemployment rates are staggering and people living on welfare -- most of them -- are further impoverished by the lack of all-weather roads that would bring down the cost of living -- even dying, for that matter.

The first time I went up the east side six years ago, it was clear that the bipole line could create a path right through the east side for a road within reasonable distance of most communities.

But that idea has been attacked repeatedly, even by the NDP MLA for the region, who you might think would have his constituents' best interests at heart.

Bipoles and roads are incompatible, they say, and yet the "proposed" road from Bloodvein to Poplar River will follow a hydro line, just as the existing winter road does now.

Then there was the cost issue. Hydro is not in the business of giving money away. Since the First Nations did not own their "traditional" lands, there was no reason to compensate them.

And so Hydro never offered the east side anything other than a few temporary jobs, and by the time compensation money was even an issue, then-premier Gary Doer had barred Hydro from negotiating and soon after forced the line west. (Today he's selling the oilsands to America.)

So the opportunity to do something remarkable for east-side communities was lost -- stillborn.

But where nothing could be offered to the east side, it was not a problem to add $1 billion to the cost of the west side, including $90 million of compensation to municipal governments "in lieu of taxes" and to land owners for easements and use of land on which to erect 47-metre bipole towers and hang ugly transmission lines.

It means that people on the west side will have their landscape blighted.

If you have never been up the west side, you won't know what it means to be part of a 150-year-old family farm, the look and feel of which is part of your DNA.

You won't know what a grave insult a bipole line is to the fabric of such farms, landscapes and communities.

And yet, there was no regard for the wishes of west-siders, only the imposition of a $1-billion eyesore that would have been out of sight and out of mind on the east side -- never coming within 50 kilometres of communities --while creating a path for a road that could spur employment and cut living costs.

The myopia of the west-side option is astonishing. In order to make environmentalists in cities happy, this policy will at once impoverish the west-side environment and fail to enrich the desperately poor east side.

Shame hardly begins to describe it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2011 A18

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