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OPINION: Thousands of earthquakes triggered by fracking near Site C raise safety concerns

Ben Parfitt, resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

BY BEN PARFITT

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives 

When BC Energy Minister Bruce Ralston revealed recently that costly geotechnical problems had arisen at Site C, he quickly blamed the previous provincial government for the mess at the single-most expensive public infrastructure project in provincial history.

But while it was the previous government that vowed to get shovels in the ground and push the hydroelectric project past the point of no return, it is the current government that for the past three-plus years has had all the relevant facts before it to determine whether it makes sense to see the project through to the end – an end that is still years and untold billions of dollars away.

Are ongoing risks at the project being compounded by thousands of earthquakes triggered by nearby natural gas industry fracking operations? You be the judge.

One thing that is abundantly clear, the dam is located in fraught terrain.

Evidence of such includes a “tension crack” that opened on the unstable north bank at the dam construction site in 2017 and that necessitated a hugely expensive clean-up bill, and a massive landslide immediately downstream of the dam in September 2018.

Then, just two months after that slide, a 4.5 magnitude earthquake triggered by a nearby natural gas industry fracking operation shook the ground so hard at Site C that workers were evacuated from the site.

As BC Hydro’s sole shareholder, the provincial government knows all of this.

It also knows that in 2017 and 2018 thousands of earthquakes occurred in a geologically fragile zone that includes Site C. Natural gas companies are active in the zone, which is underlain by faults that can become “critically stressed” during fracking operations.

This doesn’t bode well for a construction project now beset with new geotechnical problems that require “enhancements” to key pieces of dam infrastructure, including lengthy roller-compacted concrete buttresses, the powerhouse, the foundation for the as-yet-to-be-built earthen dam itself and the spillway.  

Given the slowdown in construction activity due to COVID-19, this is the opportune time for the provincial government to appoint a panel of geologists and engineers under the Public Inquiry Act to assess the ongoing geotechnical problems at Site C and get answers to a host of questions.

Why, five years into construction, does BC Hydro now believe that key components of the dam are in trouble? Are there physical signs of stress, such as cracks, in these massive works? If so, when did they occur and what does BC Hydro believe are the underlying causes? Can those problems realistically, safely and cost-effectively be fixed? Or is it time to scrap the project? Could earthquake after earthquake nearby the site make things worse than they already are or later undo any potential fixes?

The public deserves answers in light of the project’s latest delays and escalating costs, answers that should come well before a whole lot more shaking makes things far worse.

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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