In the late 1950s, the government of British Columbia planned a trio of hydroelectric dams on the Peace River with the aim of generating economic growth with cheap, renewable power. The projects were grand in scale, and today the first two dams remain major sources of the province’s electricity. But the location of the third was tricky.
In 1967, a surface geological reconnaissance of potential sites for the third dam identified a preferred spot, close to the Alberta border, because it offered firm terrain. “Site E was favoured because [of] the more competent sandstones and siltstone … on both abutments,” a report on the alternatives found.
But Site E was deemed too expensive and, in 1978, the more cost-effective – but less ideal – Site C was chosen.
Construction began in 2015 after years of exhaustive scrutiny. It was reconsidered in 2017 when the NDP took power. Now, the government is expecting two reports by the end of this year to determine if the project remains viable: BC Hydro’s revised plan for the budget and completion date, as well as an independent review commissioned by the province.
If the reviews find once again that the foundation of the dam poses geotechnical and financial risks, the conclusions shouldn’t come as a surprise, based on an examination by The Globe and Mail of public records. Some of those records are decades old. Many others, from the past 18 months, show government officials were repeatedly warned of mounting concerns.
Five years and $6-billion into construction, the troubled megaproject is beset by cost overruns and geotechnical problems.
The twin reviews point to a lack of confidence in the province’s most expensive public infrastructure project – even though it should be well past the point of no return.
BC Hydro, the Crown corporation in charge of building the hydroelectric dam, publicly conceded in late July that a “project risk materialized” on the right bank of the Peace River, which anchors the dam, the powerhouse and the spillway.
The geotechnical risks of building the dam have been well-known for decades, and the government’s top bureaucrats were apprised when riverbank excavations revealed problems that put the stability of the dam into question.
Those problems were not acknowledged publicly for more than a year, however, as engineers searched for solutions, and both the government and BC Hydro still refuse to explain precisely what the issues are.
But there are clues.
The NDP opposed the Site C dam when it was in opposition. After forming a minority government in the summer of 2017, an independent review of the partly built project was commissioned. In it, the British Columbia Utilities Commission offered no recommendations but noted that the project was already over budget. Premier John Horgan announced that December that his government would reluctantly carry on with the project started by the former Liberal government. It was given a new, larger budget of $10.7-billion – including roughly $1.5-billion in contingencies and reserves – and the Premier promised increased and independent oversight of the project.
Mr. Horgan, who had served as energy critic while in opposition, knew well that decades of planning had gone into the project before construction began. An environmental assessment process had produced stacks of studies, including mapping of the stability of the terrain where the dam and its reservoir would be built. A BGC Engineering report from 2012 found that the site was challenging because of a shoreline of sand, silt, clay and, in some places, weak bedrock composed of “extremely closely fractured” shale.
An environmental impact statement pointed to 16 earthfill dams, which are made of compacted earth, built on similar bedrock around the world. But this was not the ideal “competent” foundation to hold back the forces of the mighty Peace River.
Mr. Horgan now says he only became aware of Site C’s serious geotechnical problems and escalating costs this past summer. But the oversight his government promised meant that senior bureaucrats – the deputy minister of finance at the time, Lori Wanamaker, and Les MacLaren, the assistant deputy minister for Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources – should have been aware of the growing concerns.
Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests by The Narwhal show that, right from the start under the new government’s watch, questions were raised about the management of the project.
The annual progress report tabled by the technical advisory board in early 2018 followed a site visit in which the board raised some alarms. It accepted BC Hydro’s business case for the dam as reasonable, but “aspirational in that it embraces a number of risks that require identification, clarification and assessment.”
By the spring of 2019, the documents show, BC Hydro acknowledged the rising costs. They asked the provincial Treasury Board for the last of the contingency fund – $858.1-million – and warned that any additional expenses would have to draw on reserves.
While the budget unravelled, the engineers were examining geotechnical risks as excavation continued on the riverbanks, according to an internal report. “BC Hydro is awaiting the outcome of the right bank buttress investigation that may result in changes,” it said.
In May, 2019, the members of the project assurance board wrote to Finance Minister Carole James and Michelle Mungall, the minister of energy at the time, to let them know that they had “requested more detailed information to increase confidence that the project is appropriately managed.”
Included in a package for the ministers was a report from the technical experts listing significant risks. One was the foundation of the right bank, where water was seeping into “various ground defects” and affecting stability. The contractors were working on drainage, but the technical advisory board was calling for better mapping of the geology and hydrogeology to try to figure out what would happen once the reservoir behind the dam was filled.
All the while, BC Hydro’s main civil works contractors were pouring concrete. The project calls for about two million cubic metres of roller-compacted concrete to secure the foundation. By the end of August, 2019, they were behind schedule owing to the additional drainage requirements.
More cost issues were raised in BC Hydro’s 2019 quarterly progress report for July through September.
“The revised budget did not contemplate certain unforeseen financial impacts, for example: The project is experiencing material cost pressures in the areas of contractor delay and other claims, additional labour resource requirements, worker accommodation expansion and increased utilization, as well as estimated site reclamation costs.”
In September, the technical experts were still unsatisfied with the evaluation work. “The assessment of long-term seepage in the right bank and associated control measures requires an analysis underpinned by a hydrogeological framework and this should be initiated.”
Throughout this, the government’s promised accountability did not include public reporting.
In the legislature, Andrew Weaver, then leader of the BC Greens, challenged Ms. Mungall in May last year to make the technical advisers’ reports public: “What is the point, frankly, of having a private board issue reports that no one can have access to, other than government?” But he was rebuffed, and the material would not be made public until heavily redacted documents were released through Freedom of Information requests.
Just days before Christmas last year, BC Hydro concluded that a risk had been realized. It decided the solution was more concrete – the foundation would have to be enhanced to increase stability below the powerhouse, spillway and core areas of the dam.
The decision was shared with the project assurance board in January, and additional studies were launched. Through the spring and summer of this year, BC Hydro searched for a fix. Meanwhile, the pandemic had arrived. By the summer, there were just 500 workers on site, instead of the 2,000 the construction plans required.
At the end of July, BC Hydro publicly conceded that the project was in trouble. Mostly it blamed COVID-19, because public-health measures had reduced the pace of construction, but as a footnote it mentioned that problems with the foundation had emerged.
“BC Hydro expects to request a draw on the project reserve in fall 2020, as needed,” it said.
The government responded by commissioning a review by Peter Milburn, a former B.C. government bureaucrat with a background in civil engineering. Mr. Horgan acknowledged that the Milburn review could lead to the cancellation of the project: “If the science tells us and the economics tells us that it’s the wrong way to proceed, we will take appropriate action.”
But that report was due after the Oct. 24 election, forestalling a mid-campaign embarrassment for the NDP.
So Mr. Horgan’s second term as Premier begins as his first did, once again weighing the future of the Site C dam. The difference is that this time it is his project.
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