EDMONTON - Alberta aboriginals are lining up against an energy project deemed crucial to the B.C. economy.
At least six bands in the northern part of the province — supported by the Alberta government — have registered major concerns with B.C. Hydro's plans to build another dam on the Peace River, saying the utility still hasn't understood the effects of previous projects on the Athabasca Delta and refuses to study them.
"It's a very, very narrow approach to environmental assessment and we have so much concern," said Melody Lepine, spokeswoman for the Mikisew Cree.
B.C. Hydro is currently accepting public comments on the environmental assessment of its proposed Site C Dam, which would be located south of Fort St. John. The project would generate 1,100 megawatts of electricity and require a dam a kilometre long and 60 metres high, creating an 83-kilometre reservoir about three times the current width of the river.
But the Alberta bands point out Site C would be B.C. Hydro's third dam on the river. The giant Bennett Dam is further upstream.
They say the provincially owned company is refusing to look at the cumulative effects of those dams. They're angry that B.C. Hydro isn't including the delta in its study area, despite abundant evidence that B.C.'s dams are causing big problems in Alberta.
"By not including the delta in their assessment they can't mitigate potential impacts," said Lepine. "They don't even care.
"That's the biggest issue for us — just include the delta."
The Bennett Dam was built in the 1960s, before environmental assessments were required. None was conducted.
But research since has documented significant impacts from the dam on the Athabasca Delta, despite being hundreds of kilometres downstream.
The Northern River Basins Study from the mid-1990s found nearly half of the wetlands had disappeared by 1989. Animals that depend on them, such as muskrats or ducks, had lost up to 90 per cent of their numbers.
Annual flooding patterns, which refresh many lakes and flush streambeds, were severely disrupted. River levels during normal high-water periods were found to be significantly lower post-Bennett.
"There is no question that the lack of flooding has caused extensive damage to ecosystems throughout the delta area," summarized ecologist David Schindler.
Those conclusions were supported by the Indian Claims Commission, which strongly agreed that the treaty rights of the Athabasca Chipewyan band had been violated by the damage inflicted by the Bennett Dam.
"By declining to take reasonable steps to prevent or to mitigate environmental damages to the delta, the Crown has forsaken the legitimate interests of all Canadians and certainly the treaty rights of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation," wrote commission chairman Jim Prentice in 1998.
The commission recommended a negotiated settlement. The federal government, however, refused to talk and the band accepted a $4 million out-of-court settlement in 2002.
Now, the Athabasca Chipewyan, the Little Red River Cree, the Fort Chipewyan Metis, the Deninu K'e, the Mikisew Cree and the Dene Tha have all filed objections to B.C. Hydro's Site C environmental assessment. They say the assessment's study area stops at Peace Point, upstream of the delta, and that the research won't consider how the ongoing impacts of the Bennett Dam will add to those of Site C.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has instructed B.C. Hydro to provide a "narrative description" of the Bennett's effects on the delta, which would summarize existing research.
That's not good enough, say the bands.
"In light of the massive environmental changes that have taken place in the delta since the construction of the Bennett and Peace Canyon dams, Site C may be the final blow to the Nations' ability to access and harvest resources in the area," say documents filed on behalf of four of the bands.
The Alberta government is backing them up.
"Alberta continues to have concerns about the extent of the potential downstream impact of the Site C project," said a letter from Robert Harrison of Alberta Environment, who said B.C. Hydro should either include the delta in its study or explain its refusal.
"It is impossible to determine the impact of Site C without considering the cumulative effect of the other hydro facilities."
B.C. Hydro maintains that it's now impossible to get good data on what the Peace River and Athabasca Delta were like pre-Bennett. As well, it says Site C is much smaller than Bennett and is unlikely to make much difference.
"The facility for Site C doesn't have significant change at all with regard to flows on the river," said spokesman David Conway.
He said the environmental impact assessment is for Site C, not a retroactive examination of the Bennett Dam, and that Site C won't change the Bennett's pattern of high- and low-water periods.
"The flow volumes aren't changing significantly," Conway said. "There would be negligible changes downstream once you get past the B.C.-Alberta border."
Conway said B.C. Hydro has made contact with all the bands along the Peace River and has consultation agreements with most of them.
He said the utility expects a regulatory decision by the end of next year. Preparatory work on the site could begin in early 2015.
Lepine said her group will continue to fight to have its concerns taken into account. A community meeting held last month revealed strong feelings, she said.
"It's a pretty big deal. The importance of the delta to the community as a whole is enormous. They are willing to do whatever it takes to protect it."