VICTORIA – He was one of staunchest critics of the Site C dam, but George Heyman found himself in the uncomfortable position this week of supporting a plan to complete the $10.7 billion megaproject.
A couple of days after the decision was announced, B.C.’s environment minister said the previous Liberal government left the NDP no choice but to keep building.
“I’m obviously not going to talk about cabinet discussions, but I certainly never felt held down with a pistol to my head,” he said in an interview earlier this week.
“This was not a decision we made lightly or took any pleasure in making. This clearly was not a project we thought was a good one.”
Heyman, a former executive director of the Sierra Club and president of the B.C. Government Service Employees Union, has consistently raised environmental and economic concerns about Site C.
Heyman and Energy Minister Michelle Mungall stood at Premier John Horgan’s side for the announcement on Monday. Horgan said it was a gut-wrenching experience, adding that the ashen faces of the three politicians aptly portrayed their emotions.
“As the premier said to us, we’ve made a collective decision that we’re supporting it, but that doesn’t mean you have to not show your feelings or emotions or your disappointment,” said Heyman. “He said, ‘I’m doing that and I expect others will too.’ “
Horgan said the government had no alternative but complete the hydroelectric dam rather than absorb a $4 billion hit to its bottom line. Cancelling Site C would have jeopardized government plans for more schools, hospitals and bridges, he said.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said in a Facebook post Tuesday the past few weeks were the most difficult of her career.
“I am with so many of you in grieving the loss of agricultural land in the flood zone of Site C,” she wrote.
Heyman said the government must now find ways to make the best of the situation.
“We’re not going to simply build it and let it go to waste,” he said.
There are climate challenges ahead that will involve a lot of electrification of industry, he said.
“The challenge for me and I think all of us is to take this project and find a way to shoe horn it into that plan.”
Horgan agreed, saying the government must incorporate Site C into its climate objectives.
“It now falls to us to make sure the project, now $10.7 billion, comes in on budget and provides an opportunity for us to do more with the energy that we would not have been able to do otherwise,” he said in an interview this week.
It will be the third dam on the Peace River in northeastern B.C., flooding an 83-kilometre stretch of valley near Fort St. John. It will provide enough power to light up to 450,000 homes a year.
Horgan and Heyman both said the decision to go ahead opened wounds across B.C., including personal ones.
“People have deep feelings about this,” said Horgan, who admitted he and his wife argued about Site C. “I’m saddened many people, lifetime friends of mine, are disappointed with the decision I made.”
Heyman said: “I’ve had close friends tell me how disappointed they are in the decision.”
Others say they will continue to fight Site C. Landowners and environmentalists have asked the auditor general to examine the government’s calculations that the province would incur $4 billion in costs to cancel the project. Indigenous groups have also promised court action, claiming infringement of treaty rights.