A legal challenge has been issued on an independent power initiative in the region.
The Watershed Watch Salmon Society (WWSS) contends that 10 hydroelectric turbine facilities in the Robson Valley are in fact one big project.
Holmes Hydro Inc. of McBride contends that each one is a stand-alone facility connected only by the eventual power station.
A judge will now have to decide which contention will be used to go forward in the environmental assessment process.
"We are not trying to shut down the Holmes Hydro proposal, we want it to go through the environmental assessment process so the public can have a full hearing about whether it will be something they can support or not," said WWSS ecologist Aaron Hill. "There is environmental concern about the Holmes project, but it is certainly about the process. We contend these are 10 individual diversions linked by a single power line into a single infrastructure source and is, in our view, a single project."
Under provincial law, the formal Environmental Assessment Office's process is not required for power projects that generate less than 50 megawatts. Each of the 10 in this legal question is slated to generate between 2MW and 10MW. They are proposed for 10 creeks, none of them fish-bearing, that cascade into the Holmes River (also without fish at those points) strongly during the spring runoff but weakly in winter.
Company owner Duke Peterson said not only is each one a stand-alone facility but the formally recorded megawattage is actually overestimated for purposes of peak production. In reality all 10 combined will likely not amount to 50MW.
Each one of the 10 will, like the usual run-of-river power generator, include a small dam in the respective creek to back the water up just enough to create a pool. The water will be directed into a large, steep pipe installed alongside the creek. As the water drops down the pipe, it rushes through a turbine system that creates electricity. The electricity will run along a power cable out into a mainline running through the Holmes River valley, and processed at a proposed power substation before it is fed into the main provincial power grid.
Peterson said he considered going through the formal environmental process but he and government officials found the large-scale regulations didn't fit his project because the amounts of electricity were so small. Therefore he was advised by the Environmental Assessment Office that he could instead go through a FrontCounterBC process that was supposed to be quicker, although it still required copious reports and inspections of his proposal.
In hindsight, he said, it would have actually been faster had he gone through the more Environmental Assessment Office licensing system, but he is now, six years deep into the process, at the point of asking BC Hydro to buy his power. If they say yes, it is the last hurdle before breaking ground on the sites.
"I want to stress, the two systems are quite similar and quite rigorous," said Peterson. "Lots of studies, lots of report, lots of monitoring - 10 different creeks, 10 different licensing processes, 10 separate building projects. We didn't skip any step, and continue to do everything the government asks us to do. And now, here we are."
Hill said the conservation group is suggesting in their allegations that there are environmental impacts to hydroelectric projects in general, and they should go forward only when those concerns are formally, publicly disclosed and addressed. He said Holmes Hydro likely did nothing wrong along the path to final licensing, but the path itself was flawed and their project is now an example of those flaws.
"We just want to see it thoroughly assessed in a transparent and rigorous manner," Hill said. "We are certainly aware that when you look at all the different development projects in northern B.C., this power project is not among the higher evils. We aren't trying to shut it down, just have that proper examination of the facts."
Peterson said his business plan and the energy needs of the Robson Valley were both being bullied by this court petition, just to make a point to a third party.
"I haven't done a thing wrong," he said. "I wish they wouldn't use our projects to send a message to the government."
The court petition was issued by the WWSS (in conjunction with the David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice) on Aug. 17 in Vancouver Supreme Court. Peterson has yet to issue a legal response document. He said that he would be happy to comply with any court order, but in the absence of one his projects would go ahead as planned in accordance with the licenses already granted him.
POINTS OF CONTENTION: THE HOLMES RIVER 10
Bench Creek - 5 Megawatts
Blueberry Creek - 10
Brian Creek - 7
Jackpine Creek - 10
JR Creek - 7.50
Judy Creek - 7.50
Keith Creek - 7.50
Kelly Creek - 10
Lauren Creek - 2
Moose Wallow Creek - 10