a word on those nasty IPP projects

A friend recently sent me a link to a series of videos produced by the Save Our Rivers Society regarding the "selling off of our river resource". While I don't necessarily agree with our provincial government's approach to developing the small power projects in question, there are always 2 sides to every story and those videos only show you one.

Firstly, run-of-the-river (ROR) power projects such as these have (on their own) a much smaller impact on the environment than traditional large dam projects like the ever-on-the-table Site C. Typically, ROR projects are constructed on smaller, steep rivers and streams where there is little to no fish habitat to begin with. A small dam is constructed to divert most of the water through a pipe, which will run alongside the stream for up to a few kilometers, through a few turbines, then back into the river. The direct impacts will obviously be loss of water in the dewatered section, which will have somewhat of an impact on aquatic invertebrates and such, and on the surrounding riparian area which may benefit from the moist environment, but those are generally considered to be minor impacts. If there is no fish habitat in the dewatered section, then there is little to no impact on fish. Of course, there are always impacts associated with access, and maintenance and the like, but most of those can be mitigated through proper construction practices, monitoring and compensation. Compare that to mega-dams like the W.A.C. Bennett dam, or any on the Columbia. Those projects swamped millions of hectares of land, extirpated entire species from watersheds, destroyed archaeological sites and marginalized First Nations communities. The cumulative effects of several IPP projects in a small area is definitely a concern, so I'm concerned about the number of independent power companies who want to operate these things. Certainly, I think that BC Hydro could do a better job of developing some of these projects while keeping the cumulative impacts down. A single company can centralize their infrastructure and minimize impacts, while a million small companies will attempt to do everything on their own, creating more roads, more power lines and more infrastructure. Campbell definitely has more of an eye toward promoting business than promoting the environment, so his approach to ROR projects should definitely be challenged.

Secondly, the costs of developing these projects are not as simple as getting a $100 permit. In order to get that permit, you have to commit to a minimum of 1 full year of environmental, archaeological and socio-economic baseline studies, including the preparation of an environmental assessment through the BC environmental assessment office and, potentially, the Canadian EA agency too. It's no small change (running up to $6 million per year for a detailed study on a large project). If any fish habitat is proposed to be impacted, a fish habitat compensation plan must be prepared that holds the proponent to recreating at least twice as much habitat as is proposed to be lost. In many cases, project will either live or die on the issue of fisheries impacts, since the Fisheries Act is probably one of the most "toothy" of the environmental acts.

Some of the Save our Rivers Society's concerns are definitely valid, including the cumulative effects assessment (CEA) process. Currently, under the environmental assessment act, a cumulative effects assessment must be done with every EA. this includes identifying every single human activity that could have an impact on the valued ecosystem components (VECs) that you're studying (i.e., in the EA process, VECs can include specific species, watersheds, or even parameters that are considered to be important either on a regional or global scale, and anything that could affect these VECs must be studied in detail). The potential impacts of every project must be considered. In practice, the first project to do an EA in an area has it pretty easy because it's pretty hard to sum up with any certainty what the future effects of development are going to be on your resource if nothing else is built in your project area. Anyway, the CEA process involved quite a bit of guesswork, but I can't think of too many ways of improving it either. You essentially have to guess at the worst-case scenario if every project that is on the table gets built, which will probably never happen.

The biggest threat to our rivers (in my opinion) comes from the proposed changes to the environmental assessment act, which would remove a lot of the red tape associated with building projects like these. People should be really concerned about any government that proposes to "relax" these rules for big companies, because that's what determines how many studies they do, how much public participation is required and the level of detail in their study that is required before they are given a permit. Already, there are less strict rules for smaller projects that don't trigger a comprehensive assessment. Small power projects may only have to do a cursory investigation of potential cumulative effects, so this is definitely a concern when we're dealing with multiple small projects.

People should also be concerned about just getting involved in the EA process. Most people think that the environmental assessment process is just a bunch of developers fudging data to make their project look good, but it's actually a hugely involved process whereby qualified professionals (who are bound by codes of ethics specific to their trade) conduct a vast array of studies to try to determine the impacts of a proposed project. We generally work together with government agencies, first nations groups and communities to attempt to come up with a plan that will have the smallest impact on the environment. Of course, there are come proponents who will try to do as little as possible to get through the permitting process, but that's why there is public consultation and government regulation. In the end, the EA is required to go out to review, and if you don't get out and learn about the project, comment on the project, and follow-up on the project, then the government regulators who hand out those permits will jsut assume that everyone is ok with it. I've seen several examples of people who disagree with a project, and boycott all of the public consultation opportunities - and the only thing that comes out of that is a statement in the EA that "so and so" did not participate. There is no record of your concern. I've also seen many many examples of people who just follow the advice of special interest groups and oppose a project without really taking the time to learn about what studies have been done and why the author of the EA came to the conclusions that they came to. I think that if people took more time to actually come to the meetings, read the EA (that is always made available tot he public) and learn about the process, they would be better prepared to comment in an informed manner without just repeating the one-sided opinions of a special interest group. Public consultation has killed several large projects, including the Kemess Mine expansion. In fact, the EA process in general has killed several large projects (that you just don't hear of because the environmental implications cause the project to be shelved before it ever gets to the EA stage). If the public disagrees with a project, the proponents has not addressed the public's concerns, and it's still going ahead, then you should be turning a critical eye on the government regulators who approved the project and on the government itself.

So yes, stand up for the environment, stand up for our rivers, but be aware that the issue is never as simple as "All IPP projects are bad". Learn the process, learn how to work within it, and learn how to make it better.

No comments: