The Northwest Transmission Line (NTL), a 344-kilometre, 287 kilovolt transmission line currently being built by BC Hydro between Skeena Substation (near Terrace, B.C.) and a new substation to be built near Bob Quinn Lake, is expected to be in operation by spring 2014. The NTL runs through rugged, avalanche-prone terrain. During construction, cost estimates for the first phase of the NTL have ballooned from $404 million to $617 million.
While AltaGas has contributed $180 million to the NTL, and $130 million comes from the federal government, BC Hydro is responsible for the extra costs, which have grown to over $300 million. In the future, it’s likely that B.C. residents can expect skyrocketing hydro bills to help pay the growing financial burden of NTL construction.
To help fund the NTL, the B.C. Government received $130 million from the federal Green Infrastructure Fund. The contract between the two parties states that the Province was obligated to deliver plans for an extension of the NTL to Iskut – to get the community off diesel power – by June 30, 2012, or risk being in breach of contract and defaulting on the funding agreement.
B.C. did not deliver the plans in time. In fact, it wasn’t until March 2013, almost nine months after the deadline, that Imperial Metals and BC Hydro announced that the mining company would build a 93 km extension of the NTL to Tatogga Lake and its proposed Red Chris mine. BC Hydro agreed to buy this NTL extension for $52 million, and to build a smaller power line from Tatogga Lake to Iskut.
The line to Red Chris will not require a new environmental assessment, and is exempt from reviews that would normally be required to determine if it was necessary or if construction costs have been properly assessed. In other words, the power line to Red Chris is being fast-tracked.
If allowed to proceed as planned, the open pit Red Chris mine would destroy prime wildlife habitat for Stone sheep and grizzly bear, and leave a tailings impoundment that would pose a long-term risk to fish habitat and water quality at the headwaters of the Iskut River. It’s hard to see what’s “green” about that.
Apart from connecting Iskut (population 350) to the grid, little about the NTL would seem to qualify for green funding. According to the Federal Government website, the Green Infrastructure Fund supports “projects that will improve the quality of the environment and…that promote cleaner air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and cleaner water.” It’s a stretch to say the NTL does any of those things.
In reality, the transmission line could be the catalyst for an unprecedented wave of industrial development in northwest B.C., including up to 11 new mines in the Unuk, Iskut and Stikine River watersheds. These transboundary watersheds – flowing from B.C. into Alaska – are some of the last remaining largely intact watersheds in North America, sustaining robust populations of wild salmon and wildlife such as Stone sheep, grizzly bears, wolverine, and migratory birds.
If built, the new mines would bring open pits, industrial roads, greenhouse gas emissions, tailings ponds, and the risk of acid mine drainage throughout the watersheds. Red Chris would be the first of these mines to be developed.
Impacts are already occurring. Contractors clearing the right-of-way for the NTL have piled the cut trees into giant fifty foot tall tipi-shaped piles. Instead of selling the wood – some 490,000 cubic metres are being cut to clear the NTL right-of-way, enough wood to fill 16,000 logging trucks – the trees are simply being burned, with towers of flame turning the once living forest into smoke and ash.
As independent MLA Bob Simpson points out in the Vancouver Sun, the clear-cut and the wood-burning may put the province in violation of two of its own laws: The Clean Energy Act, which sets targets for carbon emissions reductions, and the Zero Net Deforestation Act, which contains a pledge to replace tracts of forest removed from the land base with plantings elsewhere.
In the name of “improving the environment”, the federal government gave $130 million of Green Infrastructure funding to the NTL, a project that could lead to the construction of multiple open pit mines in the transboundary watersheds. In order to receive the funding, the Province of B.C. was contractually required to deliver plans for the NTL extension by a certain date, but missed the deadline for delivering the plans. They still took the cash. Now it turns out they need a lot more money.
B.C. is quietly piling on the debt at BC Hydro as the cost of the NTL balloons – costs that may ultimately be paid by ratepayers in increased energy fees. While proponents tout the NTL as a “green” project that will provide cleaner energy and economic stimulus to a depressed region, in reality, it is a massive subsidy to industry, opening the region to large-scale mining and the subsequent destruction of wildlife habitat, and increased threats to water quality and wild salmon habitat in the transboundary rivers.
Tadzio Richards is Rivers Without Borders’ Transboundary Conservation Campaigner.