Site C dam secrecy ‘extraordinary’, international hydro construction expert tells court proceeding

Sarah Cox 

BC Hydro keeping critical information from the public about a project facing serious setbacks and almost certain delay, says expert witness

Jul 19, 2018 6 min read

An international hydro dam construction expert describes the high level of confidentiality surrounding B.C.’s Site C hydro project as “extraordinary” and says he has never encountered such secrecy during his five decades designing, developing and managing large hydroelectric projects, including China’s Three Gorges dam.

“I have never seen in 50 years a major public project or program being put in place for its ratepayers by a public agency providing as little information,” Harvey Elwin, a civil engineer who has held major leadership roles with large multinationals working on hydroelectric projects around the world, states in an affidavit filed in B.C. Supreme Court.

The 14-page affidavit forms part of Elwin’s expert testimony for an injunction applicationby a Treaty 8 First Nation to halt work on the over-budget Site C project, pending a full civil trial that aims to terminate dam construction on the grounds that the project infringes on treaty rights.

Among other troubling disclosures, Elwin’s testimony reveals an increase in the project’s transmission line cost — although the numbers are redacted in accordance with a confidentiality agreement — and a project schedule “at significant risk.”

Elwin says in the affidavit that he disagrees with BC Hydro’s position that information on the cost, schedule, status and progress of the Site C project must be kept secret from the public.

He notes that it is valid to withhold “narrow categories of commercially sensitive information” for hydro projects, such as information on contract pricing, compensation for assigned staff and internal records of discussion of claims.

But information on the status of Site C project schedules, actual costs versus planned costs, the progress of work by percent complete, and technical board reports should not be commercially sensitive “and have been routinely reported to the public on many other projects being constructed,” Elwin says.

Withholding “virtually all the cost, schedule, and progress information from the public and the public oversight bodies” such as the independent B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) are “far from the norm and contrary to policies I am used to seeing elsewhere for major world class public infrastructure projects,” the affidavit states.

“It is my opinion that it is very unusual and in conflict with the responsibility of project management and public sector officials not to keep their constituents and ratepayers informed specifically on the progress for public sector projects being performed by a public sector agency,” Elwin says in the affidavit.

“This is particularly true for a project that, in the first three years of a nine year construction duration, already has a year delay to [river] diversion and a 22 per cent budget overrun.”

The diversion of the Peace River, necessary before construction of the Site C dam structure can begin, was originally scheduled for 2019 but was pushed back to 2020 due to construction issues and on-going geotechnical problems such as landslides and large tension cracks.

The cost of the Site C dam, announced by the former BC Liberal government as a $6.6 billion project in 2010, recently ballooned to $10.7 billion. A B.C. Utilities Commission review last fall found the final price tag could exceed $12.5 billion.

Elwin, a civil engineer based in Anacortes, Washington, has a lengthy list of credentials that include experience taking over troubled hydro projects, resolving production and placing mass concrete on major projects such as the Three Gorges dam and Pakistan’s Ghazi Barotha hydroelectric project, working as a project engineer and project manager for the design and construction of transmission lines, lengthy experience as a hydrologist and hydraulics engineers for the Bechtel Corporation — the largest engineering, construction and project management company in the U.S. — and experience developing cost estimates for various aspects of large hydro projects.

Elwin’s testimony follows reports by The Narwhal depicting the high level of secrecysurrounding the Site C dam project and the lack of public accountability.

Two years ago, for instance, The Narwhal filed a Freedom of Information request asking for the Site C dam’s updated budget and project schedule. More than 800 pages of the FOI response were redacted, including the relevant information.

The Narwhal has also reported on the establishment of a new Site C “Project Assurance Board” to replace independent oversight of on-going project expenditures by the watchdog B.C. Utilities Commission.

Shepherded by BC Hydro and the B.C. energy ministry, the “project assurance board” has been meeting since January but details about its findings have been withheld from the public.

The affidavit outlines some of the difficulties Elwin encountered while trying to obtain information about the Site C project’s progress, budget and schedule for his testimony.

Elwin was asked to provide an opinion about whether an injunction over work — including clear-cut logging old-growth boreal forest — in 13 Site C project areas identified by First Nations as “critical” to maintaining their cultural practices will delay project milestones.  

In February, BC Hydro volunteered to pause work in three of those critical areas andthreatened to seek recovery from First Nations for what BC Hydro claimed would be a “substantial increased cost.”

Elwin was also asked to provide an opinion on whether BC Hydro can be expected to meet its own project milestones for Site C regardless of any injunction over areas critical to First Nations.

He states that BC Hydro’s affidavit evidence lacked key information about impacts to project schedule and costs associated with an injunction over work in the critical areas.

“After review of these Affidavits, I knew that a significant amount of information required to efficiently and effectively provide an expert opinion in reply was missing.”

BC Hydro subsequently agreed to provide the documents after a confidentiality agreement was entered to restrict some information from being disclosed outside the courtroom during the injunction hearing.

Elwin’s affidavit reveals that some of BC Hydro’s cost numbers for work in the critical First Nations areas — including transmission line costs — exceed budget numbers, although the amounts are redacted.

Elwin’s unredacted expert report will be provided to the court during the injunction application hearing which begins July 23 in Vancouver. A redacted version with confidential information removed was filed late Wednesday in B.C. Supreme Court.

The First Nations have obtained a court order requiring the proceedings to be videotaped and made available on the internet. But the terms of the order prevent confidential information from being recorded and distributed. It not yet known if reporters will be permitted to attend the proceedings.

The question of whether the Site C dam infringes on treaty rights has never been tested in the courts, and a favourable ruling for First Nations could shut down the entire Peace River hydro project.

At $10.7 billion, energy experts estimate the cost of the Site C dam’s electricity will exceed $120 per megawatt hour. By comparison, Alberta recently purchased wind energy at $37 per megawatt hour.

The B.C. NDP government has said electricity from the Site C dam will be sold for less than it costs to produce, leaving BC Hydro customers to make up the difference.