Ecojustice, representing David Suzuki Foundation and Watershed Watch Salmon Society, is in court to ensure that the B.C. government conducts an environmental assessment of a hydroelectric power project for its potential harm to the environment and shares that information with British Columbians.
Under provincial law, the government must complete an environmental assessment of any hydroelectric power project that will generate more than 50 megawatts (MW) of electricity. The Holmes Hydro Project will produce about 76 MW from 10 tributaries along a 40-kilometre stretch of the Holmes River, an important salmon river near McBride, B.C. But the Environmental Assessment Office, applying the strongly criticized practice of “project-splitting,” divided the project into smaller power plants, each of which would produce less than 50 MW, so as to avoid an environmental assessment.
Staff lawyers for Ecojustice will ask the B.C. Supreme Court to overrule the province’s decision and ask for an environmental assessment to be completed before the project proceeds.
“It sets a dangerous precedent when the Environmental Assessment Office encourages projects to be split to hide them from environmental assessment,” said Ecojustice Executive Director Devon Page. “Environmental assessments are about protecting the public interest by ensuring that harmful projects are studied before they are approved. This case intends to ensure that the Minister of Environment and the Environmental Assessment Office take that responsibility seriously.”
Many of B.C.’s environmental laws have been weakened over the past decade. Environmental assessment remains an important tool for protecting the environment when industrial development projects are proposed, particularly in British Columbia’s rich watersheds and river systems.
Ecojustice’s clients – the David Suzuki Foundation and Watershed Watch Salmon Society – are concerned about the fate of a depleted population of Chinook salmon in the Holmes River, a tributary of the Fraser River, as well as wildlife in the surrounding watershed.
Ecologist Aaron Hill of Watershed Watch Salmon Society is also concerned about the lack of transparency and public input. “When I look at the fact that this project will divert 95 per cent of the stream flow in 10 tributaries along one river, I worry about the cumulative – or combined – effects of all of these different parts of the project,” Hill said. “I think this is exactly the kind of project that the Environmental Assessment Act is meant to capture,” he added.
“The public loses when environmental assessments aren’t conducted – they don’t have input into projects that affect their communities and they don’t know what possible impacts may arise,” said Jay Ritchlin of the David Suzuki Foundation. “We expect renewable energy projects, and all other industrial developments, to be carefully assessed and monitored to ensure that we do not ruin the very rivers and valleys we are seeking to protect.”