Canada

Vaughn Palmer: Horgan dives for cover on Site C woes

Opinion: The problems and costs of the Site C hydroelectric project are getting worse. Don't expect the NDP or Liberals to talk about it during the election

An excavator dredging out a channel at the entrance to one of the river diversion tunnels on B.C. Hydro's Site C dam project on the Peace River near Fort St. John, in August of 2020. River diversion, scheduled to begin in September, 2020, is the next major milestone for the hydro-electric facility. Credit: Handout, B.C. Hydro. For Derrick Penner story, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan balked Monday at providing B.C. voters with any estimate of what it would cost to fix the stability problems at Site C.

Horgan was asked point blank if British Columbians will be given “at least a preliminary estimate of what it will cost to fix the problem at Site C” before the election.

His answer was evasive in the extreme.

Horgan began with his usual talking points about a project that the NDP inherited from the previous B.C. Liberal government, which had tried to build Site C to “the point of no return.”

The New Democrats decided to proceed “reluctantly” based on “the best information we had at the time,” said Horgan. “Now we know there are challenges with respect to geotechnical issues in the region.”

Now they know? The tone suggested that the matter had just recently been drawn to his attention. But his statement was misleading on several levels.

First, the region’s geotechnical challenges have been known for decades. Even B.C. Hydro admits that the latest problem consists of “a previously identified geotechnical risk” that only “materialized” as a result of testing and analysis during construction.

The river diversion “was critical to meeting time lines and it was critical to staying on budget,” the premier replied. “B.C. Hydro has been working hard to be sure we get the project in place as quickly as possible in a cost-effective way.”

Never mind that Hydro has blown the budget repeatedly on Site C, including a 40 per cent overrun on the main civil works contract and the liquidating of contingency funds in the process.

The current budget of $10.7 billion is about as reliable as … well, the foundations of the earth fill dam itself.

Horgan’s duck and cover performance Monday coincided with the release of an open letter calling on the government to “immediately suspend all construction on the project including the imminent river diversion.”

The authors included some longtime critics of Site C, including Robyn Allan, economist and former CEO of ICBC, Mark Eliesen, former president and CEO of B.C. Hydro, and Harry Swain, former chair of the Site C review panel.

Missing in action this time was former NDP Premier Mike Harcourt. He’d joined earlier calls to stop Site C but decided not to do so this time because of the election.

The letter also called for the Milburn review to be expanded to include a panel of independent outside experts. They would assess the geotechnical problems and determine whether they can be resolved and at what cost.

But Horgan indicated he was content to leave the problem with Milburn: “Mr. Milburn’s assessment is not yet done. When it is, it will be made available to the public and decisions will flow from that.”

Not a rush job, as you might guess.

Nor should any voter expect the Liberals to put pressure on the government to expedite the answers.

The project is so far along “it makes perfect sense to complete it,” said Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson.

As for the long record of overruns and other screw ups on Site C, Wilkinson suggested that those began on July 18, 2017, about the time John Horgan took the oath of office.

Only Sonia Furstenau, the leader of the Greens, joined Monday’s call to suspend construction. But her party missed the best opportunity to stop Site C when it did not make that a condition of the power-sharing agreement with the NDP.

In any event, it is the New Democrats who are wearing Site C now. Their effort to keep a lid on the problem until after the election echoes the B.C. Liberal coverup of the ICBC dumpster fire in the 2017 campaign.

vpalmer@postmedia.com

Second, Hydro identified the problem back in December, almost eight months ago. The utility has also known for months that the foundations will have to be strengthened for the “powerhouse, spillways and earth fill dam.”

Third, the government-appointed project assurance board for Site C was briefed about the problem in January. The board includes two of the most senior public servants in the provincial government.

Fourth, Hydro knew as far back as March that the cost of fixing the problem would be “much higher than initially expected.”

But knowing all that, neither Hydro nor the overseer board passed the news with the public until a July 31 filing to the B.C. Utilities Commission.

Only then did the New Democrats appoint Peter Milburn, a retired former deputy minister, as special adviser on Site C.

They pretended they had been told nothing to that point about the potential cost of fixing the problem or how long it could delay completion of the project beyond the  current target of 2024.

On Monday, Horgan continued to take refuge behind the Milburn appointment.

“He’s looking at engineering components as a former deputy minister of highways as well as the financial consequences as a former deputy minister of finance,” said Horgan.  “I don’t know when Mr. Milburn will be completing his analysis but that will be made public as soon as we can do so.”

But if the New Democrats have not been given a preliminary estimate of what it will cost to fix the problem — or, indeed, whether it can be fixed  — why has the government allowed B.C. Hydro to go full speed on diverting the river to begin construction of the earth fill dam itself?

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