Stories & Features

150 essential conditions: How the Site C project team is building B.C.'s largest project with environmental best practice

Ariel view of ponds at Site C

Hydropower facility will supply 35% of the power of Bennett Dam, from a reservoir area 20 times smaller

Some recent reports have suggested that construction of the Site C hydroelectric project, a third dam on the Peace River in northeastern B.C., has been rife with environmental violations. But a broader view of the facts paints a different picture, of a project that -- from an exhaustive 29,000-page environmental impact statement, to day-to-day construction activities -- stands as a study in environmental best practices for major utility projects.

Construction on the $8.335-billion project began in 2015 and will be completed in 2024. It was designed from the outset to be the most environmentally sensible way to meet the needs of a province whose energy demands are expected to increase by 40% over the next two decades.

As the third hydropower facility on the Peace River, Site C will use water already stored behind the existing W.A.C. Bennett Dam in the Williston Reservoir to generate about 35% of the Bennett Dam’s energy, with only 5% of the reservoir area. Site C will deliver enough electricity to power the equivalent of 450,000 homes per year in B.C., leaning on hydroelectric generation to offer the best mix of affordability, reliability and clean, renewable power with minimal carbon emission impacts.

Approvals came with more than 150 legally binding conditions

All new electricity-generation projects have environmental effects, and Site C is no different. There will be some potential effects that cannot be mitigated, including some that may be considered significant. But environmental approval of Site C hinged on the fact that the effects of the Site C project are being mitigated through careful project planning, comprehensive mitigation programs, and ongoing monitoring during construction and operations.

Contractors at Site C work under the guidance of an independent environmental monitor that reports to the provincial Water Comptroller. And they’re required to prepare site-specific plans that detail site and activity-specific environmental mitigation plans and how they’re being implemented.

Here’s a small sampling of key environmental mitigation measures at Site C:

  • Establishment of new habitat conservation areas, including wetland habitat areas for migratory birds and a range of other species
  • Support of rare plant habitat enhancement projects in the region
  • Restoration and re-vegetation of construction areas after construction activities
  • Implementing fleet management measures to reduce GHG emissions from construction activities
  • Placement of ditches, culverts and other structures to maintain natural drainage patterns and allow flow movement
  • Construction of bald eagle nesting platforms along the reservoir shoreline
  • Construction of amphibian passage structures in road design where roads are adjacent to wetlands or amphibian migrations

Schedule cannot be rushed

Some media reports have suggested unplanned environmental impacts are occurring because the schedule is being rushed. The project schedule has been carefully planned – in fact, there are over 5,500 distinct steps, carefully sequenced so that construction activities are safe and required mitigation plans are implemented. Every three months, progress reports are filed with the BC Utilities Commission and posted online for public review. These reports include details of any unplanned impacts at site and how they are being addressed.

The project schedule is informed and reviewed by an international Technical Advisory Board. The members of this board are globally recognized as the best hydropower facility builders in the world with extensive technical knowledge and experience in the design of hydroelectric projects. They meet twice per year to review key project milestones and ensure best practices are being followed.

BC Hydro closely monitors contractor performance on the project and conducts independent reviews to verify cost and schedule forecasting, including risk management and mitigation. In October, Ernst & Young/BTY released their review, stating: “Overall, our review finds that the project is well defined and that the processes for managing risks and costs are largely representative of leading practices. Execution of the major work packages are clearly scoped and supported by both a robust set of project management practices and tools, as well as by a team with deep experience on delivering major projects for BC Hydro.”

So what about those orders?

With 150 legally-binding federal and provincial conditions and detailed site-specific and activity-specific environmental mitigation plans, we’re always working with our contractors and federal and provincial regulators to ensure we are in compliance. A number of independent agencies oversee these conditions and the independent environmental monitor continuously inspects the contractors’ work to verify it complies with all environmental requirements and reports all non-compliances. Qualified professionals from both BC Hydro and our contractors conduct inspections daily.

To date, following 18 months of construction and multiple inspections covering the full range of conditions and activities, the project has received four orders. Two of the orders, one on waste management and recycling and one on controlling fuel leaks from vehicles, were issued to the same contractor who put in place a number of corrective actions and was found to be in compliance in a follow-up inspection.

A third order related to the construction bridge over the Moberly River and required an aquatic spill kit to be placed in a boat and an absorbent boom to be placed in the construction site area – to support response efforts in the event of a spill. The contractor responsible has put these measures in place.

The fourth order was issued by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office last April and stated that BC Hydro was not in compliance with conditions related to erosion and sediment control. We took immediate steps to respond in the face of some severe rain events that caused flash flooding and made erosion and sediment control even more challenging. In fact, the precipitation over the May to August 2016 period would be likely to occur only once or twice per century.

A new erosion and sediment control plan is now in place with 30 kilometres of silt fencing installed, nine sediment ponds in operation and 240,000 square metres of area hydroseeded – a process to control erosion. In total, there are 15 employees on the project site responsible for implementation of erosion and sediment control implementation.

In December, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency issued a notice of intent to issue an order after an inspection determined that while contingency supplies to control erosion and sediment were on-site, they were not sufficient or in the right areas. A notice of intent does not stop work – it signals that an Order could be issued if corrective steps are not taken. We took immediate action, with our contractor to ensure sufficient contingency supplies were placed in the appropriate areas on the worksite and have now provided that information to the Agency for their review. In a statement, the Agency confirmed they have received our response and that they are not contemplating a stop work order in relation to this matter.

Visit the Site C Clean Energy Project site for more information including public updates and reports.