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FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Residents of Old Fort met with BC Hydro representatives Wednesday night in an effort to see the utility company take action to address how Site C construction has impacted resident’s lives. Instead, they left with more frustration.

The group says they’ve been trying to set up an in-person meeting with the company for years to make a plan to address their concerns, including the severe amount of dust caused by construction, increased traffic, and landslide concerns.

Feeling ignored, the residents then staged a protest in front of Gate B of Site C earlier this month to set up a community meeting with BC Hydro.

Representatives for BC Hydro, including Site C communications manager Bob Gammer, met with residents at the Pomeroy Hotel and Conference Centre on Wednesday night.

As the meeting progressed, it soon became apparent that residents’ expectations of the meeting didn’t align with BC Hydro’s.

Resident concerns

The two-hour meeting began with Old Fort resident, Kelly Ziebart, reading a letter he wrote providing BC Hydro with a laundry list of concerns, including poor communication, severe dust and health concerns arising from it, noise levels, light pollution, and potential silica exposure.

Ziebart said that when construction began, BC Hydro told Old Fort residents repeatedly that impacts on their community would be minimal.

“Since 2015, Old Fort residents have sent many emails and made countless phone calls to have our concerns heard. To date, very little has been done to mitigate any of its concerns, and our list keeps growing with impacts becoming more and more severe,” Ziebart said.

He touched on other concerns, such as high traffic, a lack of public road safety, future truck hauling when Hydro’s conveyor system is down, a lack of an emergency plan for residents, and reduced access to emergency response vehicles.

Other concerns listed were the loss of recreational land use, stigma surrounding the safety of the dam, changing water levels, and future landslides.

Ziebart also spoke of financial impacts stemming from the dam’s construction, such as the cost of frequent dust clean-up, property devaluation, and job losses due to road closure for penstock movement.

“This has been going on for seven years, and it just continually gets worse.”

The meeting continued with other BC Hydro representatives introducing themselves but got off to a rocky start as there were no microphones available, making it difficult for the considerable crowd to hear what employees had to say in the spacious Scotty meeting room.

The construction manager for Site C, Chris Waite, began by addressing the dust, telling residents the actions that BC Hydro has taken since the protest to mitigate it, such as applying calcium to the road and the re-deployment of water trucks.

“We had put down the first application [of calcium]. It was not successful. It got washed out with some of the rains, and we had to grade the roads, and we needed a second application,” Waite explained.

“We were late on getting that one down. I’m just gonna say that upfront, but we got it down,” he admitted.

However, many attendees, including Peace River Regional District director, Brad Sperling, felt these measures should have been done from the start of construction.

“That should have been done in the spring, and it should be done on a continuous basis. This has been going on for seven years, and it just continually gets worse,” Sperling told Energeticcity.

Residents informed BC Hydro staff that while the company may have taken further action, it has not improved the amount of dust in the air and in their homes.

When it came to health concerns the residents had about prolonged exposure to the dust, Hydro representatives told them about their “comprehensive” air quality monitoring program.

“We have a total of five or six air quality issues that monitor 24/7 for the particle sizes that are particularly concerned for people’s health,” a BC Hydro staff member said.

He then added that the company shares that data in real-time with Northern Health and follows provincial guidelines on air quality.

Residents said that this wasn’t enough.

“The only thing BC Hydro ever comes back to is saying that they are operating within their federal guideline. They don’t actually try to take any kind of responsibility. Even if the [air quality monitors] spike five or six times throughout the day, as long as it’s allowed, then that’s what they go back to,” Ziebart told Energeticcity.

The Golden Hour

When addressing emergency vehicle response times and potential delays, residents asked if a vehicle were to “spin out” or otherwise block Old Fort road and a resident needed an ambulance, what kind of delay would be added if the emergency vehicle had to go through Gate A and exit through Gate B.

“What happens when the road is blocked, and your dad’s dying down there, and an ambulance can’t go down that road and has to go through Gate A? What’s the timeframe of that trip?” one resident asked.

BC Hydro staff were not immediately certain. Two representatives discussed it and said it would likely be about fifteen minutes.

Sperling says he was shocked that BC Hydro staff didn’t already know the answer.

“When they developed this emergency plan, did not one of them maybe drive from Gate A down to Gate B to see? I couldn’t believe my ears,” Sperling said.

Another resident questioned how emergency vehicles would know the road is blocked and how that would affect emergency response times.

“The golden hour. I’m sure everybody’s heard of that. As it is already, it’s very difficult to get an ambulance to be fast. How does the ambulance know when something has just jack-knifed on the road, 30 seconds after you made your call?” the resident asked.

Jim Ellis, security manager for Site C, said they’d be relying on information from a number of different sources to pass along that information to emergency vehicles, including the Operational Communication Centre.

“That’s a really big point we need to implement into our plan if that happens, and we’ll do that,” Ellis said.

During the meeting, a representative for BC Hydro told residents that the company offered residents compensation through the PRRD via a community agreement, something Sperling says is simply untrue.

“That was an outright lie,” the board chair said. “What was funny was he didn’t realize I was in the room. We hadn’t met. But, did he not look at the invite list or the sign-in sheet?” Sperling said.

Future meetings deemed necessary

Throughout the meeting, multiple residents told BC Hydro that they needed to be compensated for the impacts they’ve suffered in many facets of their lives, including their property values, as well as mental and physical health.

“The big picture is the dam is there. We can’t stop any of these things from happening, but what we all feel is that we have no option in life. We cannot leave there. We cannot sell these houses,” one resident said.

“We financially lost everything. We can’t move if we wanted to. Everybody around us has been compensated for their impacts except for us, and we’re right there. We look at our windows, and we see it,” the resident continued.

Greg Alexis, with Site C communications, told Energeticcity that compensation is something the company would have to take a further look at.

“I think there were a lot of things that came up [in the meeting] that we need to take back and look at, including that one,” Alexis said.

Northern community relations manager with BC Hydro, Bob Gammer, told residents that another meeting could be possible in another month or two, which was met by further frustration. The meeting then ended abruptly, with many residents walking out.

MLAs visit Old Fort

North Peace MLA Dan Davies and Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka, the critic for Energy and Mines visited the Old Fort community on Wednesday afternoon.

“We went on a bit of a tour went and looked over some of the challenges they were having the dust, the noise, the construction, some of the things that they’re facing.”

“Just looking around at vehicles with the dust. I’ve been following this for a while. I’ve been seeing the pictures. Without a doubt, the residents are impacted,” Davies said.

He says the MLAs made a commitment to follow up with BC Hydro on what’s being done for the residents.

“I think it’s important for BC Hydro and the ministry to, first and foremost, acknowledge that residents are being impacted by excessive dust, noise, and light pollution.”

Davies added that he and Shypitka will work together to try to hold BC Hydro accountable.

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Spencer HallInvestigative Reporter

Spencer Hall is a news reporter for energeticcity.ca and a recent graduate of the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s Radio Arts & Entertainment program. Growing up in Northwest B.C. made Spencer aware of the importance of local journalism, independent media, and reconciliation. In his spare time, you can find Spencer reading, playing video games, or at the FSJ dog park with his dog, Teddy.