EDMONTON - Alberta aboriginals have joined British Columbia First Nations in filing legal challenges to a BC Hydro proposal for another dam on the Peace River.
The Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations have begun a lawsuit challenging Ottawa's approval of the Site C dam project. They say its environmental assessment didn't consider any of the dam's possible downstream effects in Alberta.
"We wanted studies done on what the impacts would be on the Peace-Athabasca Delta," Mikisew spokeswoman Melody Lepine said Thursday. "Those were not done."
The lawsuit, filed in Federal Court, is in addition to a separate one filed Wednesday by four B.C. bands. They want the dam approval overturned on the grounds the project would damage their ability to exercise treaty rights.
The Alberta lawsuit points out that BC Hydro's Site C environmental assessment stops at Peace Point, upstream of the delta, and that research ignores how the ongoing impacts of the existing Bennett Dam will add to those of Site C. The bands say the Bennett Dam has already created significant changes in the delta that were never studied when that project was built in the 1960s.
Research has since documented significant impacts on the Athabasca Delta, despite being hundreds of kilometres downstream. Nearly half of its wetlands had disappeared by 1989. Animals that depend on them, such as muskrats or ducks, had lost up to 90 per cent of their numbers.
Annual flooding patterns, which refresh many lakes and flush streambeds, were severely disrupted. River levels during normal high-water periods were found to be significantly lower post-Bennett.
No environmental assessment was ever done for the Bennett Dam.
At least six Alberta bands, supported by the provincial government, registered those concerns during hearings on Site C. Lepine said they were ignored.
"None of our concerns have been addressed throughout the consultation process."
Lepine said the Alberta-based lawsuit alleges the federal approval breached Ottawa's duty to consult.
BC Hydro has said that it's now impossible to get good data on what the Peace River and Athabasca Delta were like pre-Bennett. As well, it says Site C is much smaller than Bennett and is unlikely to make much difference.
The utility argues the environmental impact assessment is for Site C — not a retroactive examination of the Bennett Dam — and that Site C won't change the Bennett's pattern of high- and low-water periods.
The $7.9-billion dam would be the third on the Peace River and would flood 55 square kilometres of land. It would generate enough power for 450,000 homes.
A joint federal-provincial environmental assessment panel reviewed the proposal and released a report in May, but it did not make a clear recommendation for or against.
The panel's report said the dam would cause significant, adverse effects on the environment, wildlife, aboriginals and farmers. It also said BC Hydro had not demonstrated the need for the dam on the timetable it set out.
But the panel also concluded there would be clear benefits to the proposed dam.