Original Published on Aug 12, 2022 at 10:52
By Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Old Fort residents aired their concerns to BC Hydro last month about its shortcomings mitigating the impacts of Site C dam construction on their community, but the town hall ultimately did more harm than good, says the chair of the Peace River Regional District.
Brad Sperling, who also represents Area C which includes the riverside community downstream from the dam, attended the July 29 meeting in Fort St. John, and caught BC Hydro misleading residents by falsely claiming a community measures agreement had been made with the PRRD, offering compensation to residents.
“We’ve been going through this for years, and it’s gotten worse for those residents down there. They’ve complained to Hydro, we have, and that dust control, it’s supposed to go on year-round,” he said. “It’s pretty sad when residents have to get picket signs and block an entrance to get someone to pay attention to them.”
Frustrated residents last month said they were prepared to continue protesting if action isn’t taken on their concerns, saying they’ve been suffering for years from the dust, noise, and traffic from the construction site, just two kilometres upstream of their homes.
While the PRRD and BC Hydro have already reached a regional legacy benefits agreement providing for annual payments once the $16-billion dam is operating, the regional district has been pushing for a more specific community measures agreement to mitigate the increasing impacts on residents and regional services during its construction, from sewer and solid waste, to lost tax revenues, traffic safety, and the local aggregate and gravel supply.
Sperling says a meeting between the PRRD and BC Hydro president Chris O’Reilly is expected this fall, with the intention of discussing a community measures agreement.
Meeting called a ‘catastrophe’
Old Fort resident Elaine Smith says she walked away from the July 29 meeting feeling little has changed from the current predicament – construction dust is still an issue, and safety concerns were raised about emergency response times.
“The meeting was a catastrophe,” she said. “A lot people are stressed out. It’s all we ever talk about, it’s all we ever do, but it’s become so unhealthy to talk about a lot of people are having panic attacks.”
Residents have previously voiced concerns about large trucks spinning out in the winter, which could lead to the only road into the community being blocked.
Sperling says he was surprised BC Hydro couldn’t provide an adequate response to how long it would take an ambulance to arrive on scene of an emergency in Old Fort, after it was suggested emergency vehicles could drive through the Site C access gates in such an event.
“The dust, and the safety aspects – those are things they’re supposed to be looking after,” he said.
MLA Dan Davies wasn’t able to attend the town hall but says he has written to energy minister Bruce Ralston to bring forward the concerns of residents.
He says he also visited Old Fort with Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka, the provincial Opposition energy critic, to get a better sense of the situation, meeting with both Sperling and residents.
“The minister has recognized that the Old Fort residents are impacted by Site C,” said Davies.”Which is something that BC Hydro seemed hesitant to directly state.”
Concerns being heard, says Hydro
Greg Alexis, a BC Hydro spokesman for Site C, says the concerns from residents have been heard.
He says emergency vehicles are being allowed through the dam site to access the Old Fort community for both emergency professionals and residents, and that the company has reached out to local RCMP to help with snow chain awareness to prevent spinouts.
“We have spoken to RCMP and they have committed to doing a media campaign about snow chain usage on Old Fort Road, along with enforcement, for this upcoming winter,” Alexis said.
In the meantime, Alexis says dust mitigation is ongoing, and said the islands adjacent to Old Fort, where fish habitat enhancements are being constructed, are being watched closely. The air monitoring station in that area has not recorded any 24-hour air quality exceedances the past 90 days, according to Alexis.
“The project continues its work to mitigate the impacts of dust from construction as much as possible. We have increased our level of dust suppression and continue to target work areas and roads where we are seeing dust being generated,” he said.
Alexis says a few residents have also arranged for mobile dust monitoring devices to be deployed on their properties by BC Hydro, Alexis added.
“The mobile devices can help us better understand the airborne dust concentration at a specific residence,” he said
Sperling said while he’s glad to see dust suppression increase and calcium be put on the roads, he says it should have been done starting in spring.
“Those people just want their lives back,” he said. “One of Hydro’s pillar statements is they are a ‘good neighbour’. No, they’re not a good neighbour, they’re a horrible neighbour – ask the people at Old Fort.”
This item reprinted with permission from Alaska Highway News, Fort St. John, British Columbia