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B.C. Hydro has already spent a third of a billion dollars laying the groundwork for the Site C dam. Now, the Crown corporation wants to start, by mid-January, to clear the way for the massive infrastructure project it has been trying to build for 35 years.

Two things stand in the way of a third dam on the Peace River now. First Nations who will see their traditional territories flooded expect to file a legal challenge in November. And around the same time, cabinet members of the B.C. Liberal government need to decide whether they can stomach signing off on $8-billion in new debt.

Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations has boxes of paperwork piled up for the many permit applications that B.C. Hydro needs approved before full construction gets under way. Instead of looking at them, his legal team is working on two applications for judicial reviews, one for each of the environmental certificates issued by the federal and provincial governments.

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The construction work in January would include clearing trees at the dam site, putting in power lines, laying down access roads and building a camp to accommodate workers. Chief Willson says that won't happen on his community's lands.

"We don't have the human or financial capacity to deal with Site C," he said in an interview. "We're not going to be able process their applications. They are going to have to wait.

"And if they start without their permits, the only recourse is to file an injunction."

The government hopes First Nations will agree to sign off on the permits.

While Chief Willson maintains his community's consent is required, the province says the decision still rests with the Crown.

The province has been left to negotiate and not one of the First Nations communities that will see a permanent, negative impact on their lands and rights has consented to the construction of Site C.

B.C. Hydro, in a letter to local governments and First Nations, last week explained its draft plans. Officials assured the groups that "no construction or site-preparation activities will take place unless the project receives a final investment decision from the province, as well as all required permits and authorizations from the federal and provincial governments." Consent from the West Moberly or any other First Nation is not on the checklist.

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The debt may be the thornier issue within the B.C. Liberal caucus and cabinet. This is a party that has built its political brand around careful debt management, proudly taking full credit for the province's triple-A credit rating.

By the end of the current fiscal year, the ever-growing total provincial debt is expected to reach almost $64-billion. When the cabinet sits down to look at signing off on the Site C investment, it is with the knowledge that they are spending an astonishingly large sum. The returns will likely not come back until long after most of them have left office.

Energy Minister Bill Bennett, a veteran of cabinet, can't recall another decision that involved such a big price tag. But he says the consideration on his mind is the cost of the electricity, not the dam. He wants to know whether the private sector can provide the power for less.

"The cost per megawatt hour is going to be the driving determinant of the decision that government makes … Can we do it cheaper somewhere else is what we are looking at right now," he said in an interview.

"It will be a long and difficult discussion because everybody wants certainty."

Five years ago, there would have been an ideological push in cabinet to send the project to the private sector. Those days, he said, are gone. "It's a very pragmatic cabinet. We want to know what the impact on the ratepayer is going to be. We obviously want to avoid undermining our relationship with First Nations generally in the province, so we are not going to take a chance on doing that if the ratepayer is not going to be benefit in a pretty significant way."

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That relationship with First Nations is going to be sorely tested if cabinet agrees to go ahead with Site C. Mr. Bennett said negotiations will continue but the construction decision can't wait.

"It's a decision that governments have struggled with over the years and I think we have to make it here, now, and get past it one way or the other."

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