Will clean energy be green? The Holmes Hydro Case
Ecojustice's Karen Campbell introduces a new case that challenges the "clean" in clean energy
During the past decade, many environmental laws in British Columbia have been weakened. One such law is the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Act, which is intended to assess the environmental effects of potentially harmful projects, like major hydro projects and mines. While changes to the law have hampered its effectiveness, environmental assessment remains an important tool for protecting the environment in B.C.
Recently, Ecojustice was approached with concerns that B.C.’s environmental assessment laws are not being applied properly by the government. That’s why Ecojustice recently launched a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court that challenges the province’s position that a river diversion hydro project in the Interior does not require an environmental assessment. Our clients, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, are concerned about project splitting — where projects are divided into smaller pieces to avoid an environmental assessment.
In 2007, Holmes Hydro Inc., a company in the Robson Valley near McBride proposed a hydroelectric project to the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office. The proposal was described as building at least 10 small hydro plants on tributaries of the Holmes River, with a capacity of almost 85 megawatts. These sites would be linked by a single transmission line that would connect it to the province’s power grid.
Under provincial law, an environmental assessment is triggered for any project of 50 megawatts or more. The 85 megawatt capacity of the Holmes Hydro Project is well over this threshold. Yet, curiously, the Environmental Assessment Office told the company that it didn’t need to do an environmental assessment because each of the 10 individual hydro sites would only generate between two and 10 megawatts of power — ignoring the fact that the combined capacity of these connected sites is well in excess of the threshold.
As a result, the project has continued through approval processes, but no environmental assessment has been done. One of the concerns is that without an environmental assessment, it is very hard for the public to find information about the project. Where there is an environmental assessment, information and studies about the project are posted to a public website.
The David Suzuki Foundation and Watershed Watch Salmon Society have learned learned that Haller’s Apple Moss, a red-listed species that relies on the humid environment near the streams, exists there. They have also learned that the Holmes River is a large producer of chinook salmon, and they are concerned about the effects the project might have on a downstream salmon population that feeds into the Fraser River system. The Holmes River watershed has important wildlife values, and the effects of damming and diverting 10 streams and building access roads on all of them should be evaluated. Without an environmental assessment, we won’t know how to address these concerns, or what other values should be protected as this project is developed.
To be clear, this case is about properly applying the laws of B.C. The law says that where a hydroelectric project is more than 50 megawatts, an environmental assessment is required. The case is not about stopping this project. We've filed this petition with the court to ensure that the B.C. government applies its own law and conducts an environmental assessment before this project is constructed. It is in the best interests of the province to ensure that the environmental impacts of this project — on species we know about and on those we don’t — are considered, addressed, and protected. This will help ensure that clean electricity in our province is truly green.
Keep checking the Ecojustice blog for updates this case and for news on our other efforts to clean up Canada’s energy production and protect the environment.
Photo by Perry Melenka.