The dispute over the assessment of 10 power generation sites along a 40-kilometre stretch of the Holmes River was launched by a coalition of conservation groups.
The Environmental Assessment Office said it wouldn't conduct a review of the project, but the coalition — which consists of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the David Suzuki Foundation — asked the court to overturn the decision.
The coalition claimed the assessment was necessary because the 10 sites together would generate more than the 50 megawatts needed to set off the environmental review.
Instead, the court sided with the EAO on Friday, ruling that no assessment is required because each of the plants are considered separate projects with a generating capacity of less than 15 megawatts.
While Holmes Hydro Inc. has said that all 10 power plants must be built to make the project economical, they are actually individual parts that can function independently of each other, the ruling said.
Aaron Hill with Watershed Watch Salmon Society said he believes the project could endanger the chinook salmon population in the Holmes River, but it is hard to know the exact environmental impacts unless an assessment takes place.
"We know what's at stake, but the public doesn't have a chance to fully understand what the likely impacts are going to be, so we lose the public transparency that you get with an environmental assessment," he said.
Justice Nathan Smith concluded that since Holmes Hydro has already spent $2 million on developing its proposal under the assumption that the project can go ahead without an environmental assessment, and would need to rack up additional costs if an assessment is deemed necessary, "the balance of convenience clearly favours Holmes Hydro and I would not grant the relief requested."
Hill said the court decision highlights how weak environmental assessment laws are in B.C.
"The current act ... gives the Environmental Assessment Office a tremendous amount of discretion as to whether a project is reviewable under the Act," he said.
"It speaks to the need for the government to clarify and strengthen the environment assessment laws instead of continually weakening them if (government) wants to actually protect the public interest and protect our fish and wildlife population."
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