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Farmer Lynda Peterson recently made a submission to the Joint Review Panel assessing the impact of the proposed Site C dam. This image shows farmland that will be drowned if the dam goes ahead.Lynda Peterson

The Joint Review Panel examining the Site C dam proposal has reversed an earlier decision and is now asking B.C.'s Agricultural Land Commission for input on a project that could drown thousands of hectares of farmland.

The last-minute decision, which comes just before public hearings end Thursday, was made despite a provincial government attempt to keep the ALC out of the process.

"The Panel would appreciate if the Agricultural Land Commission would provide its written advice as to the process it would follow … were the project not excluded from the requirements of the Agricultural Land Commission Act," Brian Wallace, counsel to the federal-provincial panel, said in a letter Monday to the directors of the ALC.

Mr. Wallace asked the ALC "to provide its advice as quickly as possible," saying the public only has until Feb. 3 to make final written comment.

Colin Fry, executive director of the ALC replied by e-mail saying the matter will be discussed by the board this week.

The exchange between the two bodies came despite a letter Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett wrote in December, in which he sought to block ALC involvement in the Site C review.

"The province is aware that one of the issues at the [JRP] hearing will be the effect of the project on agricultural land, some of which is within the Agricultural Land Reserve," Mr. Bennett stated in a letter to Stephen Bellringer, chair of BC Hydro, which was copied to Richard Bullock, ALC chair. "I am writing to inform you that the government's current view is that this process should not be duplicated … under the Agricultural Land Commission Act."

Under legislation, the ALC is supposed to review applications to remove land from the ALR. But Mr. Bennett's letter was a clear signal that the ALC was not to assess the effect of the proposed dam on farmland in the Peace River Valley.

"The Joint Review Panel has a very comprehensive process in place and are free to seek out information from whomever they think can offer input," Mr. Bennett said Wednesday in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "This is an independent process which is not complete and I will not be commenting further until after the Panel has made a final recommendation."

If the Site C dam goes ahead, about 3,000 hectares of farmland will be inundated by a reservoir.

Last week, the Peace Valley Environmental Association urged the JRP to seek advice from the ALC, saying the loss of farmland would be dramatic, but the panel flatly rejected the request.

Then Joan Sawicki, a former NDP cabinet minister and long-time defender of the ALR, appeared before the JRP. She reminded the panel that while in cabinet in the 1990s, she had been in charge of B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office. And she argued that the JRP couldn't do its job properly without considering the effect of the proposed dam on agricultural land.

She said a significant swath of prime farmland will be lost if the dam goes ahead and she urged the JRP to get the ALC involved.

Mr. Wallace later sent Ms. Sawicki an e-mail informing her that "the panel has reconsidered its decision."

Ms. Sawicki said in an interview Wednesday that she is pleased by the decision, but is concerned the ALC might not have enough time for a full response.

"It's very, very late in the game. It's going to be hard for the ALC to respond," she said.

Ms. Sawicki was also critical of "the government's underhanded … way of by-passing the ALC," through Mr. Bennett's letter to BC Hydro.

Among those making presentations to the JRP last week was Lynda Peterson, a farmer who let a series of scenic photographs of threatened agricultural land do the talking for her.

"If every British Columbian could spend just one day in the valley, the outcry to stop this dam project once and for all would be resounding," she stated, showing the panel photos portraying some of the rich farmland that would be drowned.

After ending public hearings this week, the JRP has until the end of April to submit its recommendations to the federal and provincial governments.