To stop West Coast salmon from going the way of East Coast cod, the B.C. government pulled the plug on the giant Kemano hydro project in northwestern B.C.
The move delighted environmentalists and area Natives but left business groups and affected workers spitting mad.
Premier Mike Harcourt killed Alcan's $1.3 billion Kemano Completion Project
Jan. 24, citing worries over the harm lowered water levels resulting from the huge dam would do to salmon stocks in the Fraser River system.
"We won't take the chance" with the salmon, Harcourt told a Vancouver news conference.
He called on the federal government to end its 1987 agreement, signed by Brian Mulroney's Conservatives, B.C. Social Credit and Alcan, to use up to 88 per cent of the Nechako River. He said the deal was negotiated in secret, without full information on the effect the project would have on salmon runs and with an exemption for any environmental assessment studies.
"If the federal government refuses to do its part by reversing its decision, my government will be forced to step in with legislative action," he said.
The shutdown sets up a battle royale over who should compensate the aluminum company for the $535 million it's already sunk into the megaproject.
Harcourt insisted Ottawa is liable, but federal Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin accused B.C. of playing politics, saying it had the power to revoke Alcan's licence, granted by the Socreds.
"To start this game of trying to reconstruct past history and try to say, "We're going to make the decision but somebody else will pay the cost,' is not, I don't think, a constructive or responsible approach to this issue."
The company's only comment is that it is disappointed and wants to meet with government to discuss the shutdown of the project, which is also called Kemano II and was to provide Alcan with more hydro power for its smelters.
The Cheslatta-Carrier Nation is applauding the decision, but it's doing so cautiously, said Mike Robertson, a senior researcher with the band in Grassy Plains.
"It's fine to cancel the project, but we're still waiting to hear what's going to be done about Kemano I," he said.
Outstanding issues from the first phase include treaty and land claims and flooding.
When Kemano I began in the 1950s, the Cheslatta were forced to surrender their land and move to Grassy Plains because of continual flooding. Homes on the band were burned.
And since then the site of the village, including ancient burial grounds of 50 of their ancestors on the shores of Cheslatta Lake, have flooded 80 times.
The land still floods every spring and summer and area rivers remain 30 per cent normal levels. There were plans for Alcan to complete the nearby Kenney Dam to restore water levels and stop flooding, something Cheslatta hopes will happen so they can return. (Alcan has yet to comment on the fate of the dam.)
"In time, that's the plan of the people, to take control of their land and start long-term rehabilitation of the rivers and lakes," he said.
The Cheslatta are also worried about the future of the hydroelectric project, now a gigantic half-completed hole carved out of the side of the mountain.
"We're afraid it might turn into a Kemano III," said Robertson.
But he said next time he's certain his people will be included in the process.
"They sure learned a lesson on how to deal with a megaproject of this size," he said. "(The situation) is a result of 15 years of hard work by the Cheslatta."
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