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Located on the south bank of the Peace River, construction continues on the Site C dam.

Twenty-two months after her government approved the Site C dam, B.C.’s costliest public infrastructure project in history, Energy Minister Michelle Mungall made her first visit to the construction site for which she is responsible.

Ms. Mungall was a passionate opponent of the northern B.C. project before her party formed government. Now, she must perform the role of chief advocate for a $10.7-billion hydroelectric dam that is in danger of running over budget.

As the minister responsible, she defends the decision by her government in December, 2017, to move forward with project. It began under the former Liberal government, and after her NDP took power and reviewed the project, the new government decided it was too far along to stop.

“I stand by the choice we made," Ms. Mungall said, "because the negative consequences of discontinuing the Site C project were such that we wouldn’t have been able to deliver on the basic services that people need every day.”

With 1,100 megawatts of capacity, the Site C dam on the Peace River near Fort St. John will provide enough energy to power the equivalent of about 450,000 homes a year. But it will flood 55 square kilometres of river valley, and an environmental review concluded it will have negative effects on wildlife, agricultural land and Indigenous communities.

While in opposition, Ms. Mungall laid out the reasons why the project was a bad idea. Site C is a “a 1953 solution” to the province’s energy needs, she said in 2016, as she joined a flotilla of paddlers in a demonstration against the dam. With the cost of wind and solar power dropping, the NDP had argued then that there were better ways of meeting the province’s energy needs. “It’s not okay to flood 80,000 hectares of agricultural land,” she said at the time.

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Energy Minister Michelle Mungall with Mike Clark (at left with hands up), engineering division manager, Site C Project and Ken McKenzie (sunglasses), executive vice-president.

After her site visit in October, Ms. Mungall now has plenty of good things to say about the project, which is halfway to completion. She said there were 4,700 workers on site, enjoying good wages and benefits and a safe work environment. And, she said, British Columbia needs the power. “Of course we need that electricity,” she said in an interview.

She felt sadness as well, at the sight of the massive machinery resculpting this section of the Peace River valley. In her own riding in the Kootenays, there remains lingering resentment about the impacts of the dams built there decades earlier.

“A lot of people also know the consequences of these projects on the landscape, and so that’s why we can never walk away saying this is just fantastic,” she said.

It was "a decision between a rock and a hard place that we’re going to have to go forward with it.”

Having decided to continue, though, now Ms. Mungall has the unenviable task of trying to keep the project on track. Recent history shows the odds are against her.

In January, the C.D. Howe Institute questioned the economic soundness of Canada’s biggest dam projects.

“Canada has several large hydroelectricity projects presently under construction all of which have ever-increasing estimates of projected total cost: Site C on the Peace River in northern British Columbia at $10.7-billion, Keeyask on the Nelson River in Manitoba at $8.7-billion, and Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River in Labrador at $12.7-billion," warned the report, titled Dammed If You Do. It concluded that ratepayers would be better served with alternative energy production.

The original budget for Site C when it was approved by the former Liberal government was $7.9-billion and that estimate has increased twice already. As well, the project has been set back by tension cracks on the banks of the river that pushed back a key target to divert the river by one year.

On time and on budget is the goal, but Ms. Mungall can’t say she will deliver.

“I’m not going to sit here and say that there aren’t challenges with that," Ms. Mungall said. “We’re doing the very best that we can to maintain those budgets so that this project does come in on budget."

For now, all she can say for sure is that, “Today, it is on time.”

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