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BC Hydro revives contentious underground substation plan for downtown Vancouver

BC Hydro has proposed a substation under the playground of the Lord Roberts Elementary Annex in Vancouver, seen above.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

A proposal to build an electrical substation under a downtown elementary school playground in return for a new school has angered some parents who worry about the safety of the project’s location.

“It’s never been done before. There’s no evidence of this kind of thing being tried before,” said Heather Charlton, a parent who is planning to voice her opposition to the idea at a Vancouver school-board committee meeting on Wednesday.

The proposed substation would be built under the playground of the Lord Roberts Elementary Annex. In exchange, BC Hydro has offered to fund the construction of a new school at nearby Coal Harbour.

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A substation increases current and reduces voltage as part of the electricity-distribution system. There have been concerns about the electro-magnetic fields of both high-power transmission lines and substations for decades, with no clear evidence indicating they are a danger to human health.

BC Hydro said Hydro needs the substation projects to expand the electrical network to support the region’s booming population. The Lord Roberts Elementary plan would be cheaper than the alternative – having to buy land for above-ground substations at downtown Vancouver land prices.

A report summarizing consultations that BC Hydro held in May on the proposed substation shows that about half of people surveyed thought the proposal should be explored more, while 43 per cent were opposed. As well, although 45 per cent of those surveyed said they could see some clear benefits of the substation for their community – including the promise of enough money to build a new school – almost half said they didn’t see benefits.

The school board held its own consultations, and hired an engineer from Stantec to assess the environmental risks of the proposed substation. BC Hydro says there have been other substations around the world, including a recent one in the Highbury neighbourhood of London, that are as close to schools as the Vancouver proposal.

But Ms. Charlton, who has a child going to the Lord Roberts Annex, said she is dismayed the school board didn’t hire its own specialist in child development to see what kind of impact it would have for children to be playing above an electro-magnetic field for hours a day.

Leanne Dospital, who sits on the parent-advisory committee for the Lord Roberts Elementary main school, said some parents are resigned to the substation’s arrival and they are pushing hard to ensure that the money BC Hydro is spent on needed school space.

But, she said, many parents are resentful that they are being told that they can only get the much-needed new school in Coal Harbour if they agree to something that many worry is unsafe.

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“There are no other families or neighbours who are having to have this kind of deal to get a school,” Ms. Dospital said.

An Education Ministry spokesman said the province is willing to provide the money for the school district to develop preliminary plans for the new Coal Harbour school, if the project goes ahead. Other than that, there is no money available from the province for construction in the current 10-year budget.

The board will vote next Monday on whether to move ahead with the proposal.

Early last year, Hydro proposed building two substations: One under Lord Roberts Annex, now being proposed again, and another under Emery Barnes Park in the Downtown South.

In return, it offered to refurbish both parks, and build two new schools: One to replace Lord Roberts Annex, and another in Coal Harbour. That earlier deal was dropped because Vancouver couldn’t meet the deadline to decide.

“It’s not the easiest location,” said Andrew Leonard, the current proposed substation’s project manager, of building the substation underground. “The only other option is to buy private land and build an indoor, above-ground substation. Hydro really is trying to do the right thing by not taking away housing stock.”

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Information from BC Hydro has said about three years of the construction will require an open excavation. Then there will be another two years of work that is less disruptive, because the land above the substation will be restored to normal.

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