The 10 hydro projects proposed on tributaries to the Holmes River near McBride will not have to undergo an environmental assessment as if they were a single project, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled last week.

Ecojustice, representing the David Suzuki Foundation and Watershed Watch Salmon Society, brought the case before the Court in April.

“While we’re disappointed in the outcome, we’re pleased to see the Court acknowledge that the Environmental Assessment Act could have been drafted better to address this issue,” said Karen Campbell, Ecojustice staff lawyer. “We also note that in March of this year, B.C. Hydro took steps to expressly guard against clustered projects like the Holmes Hydro Project from being eligible for its Standing Offer Program.”

The Holmes River independent power project, spearheaded by McBride’s Duke Peterson, consists of 10 generating sites on tributaries to the Holmes River. Combined, the 10 small projects would produce 76 MW of electricity, but individually none of the projects exceeds 50 MW (which is the threshold for a full environmental assessment in BC). When considered as separate projects, it removes the obligation for a full environmental review, though the developer still has to complete various environmental impact studies for each individual project under BC law. Whether or not these environmental assessments are good enough for the scale of the project is the subject of the case.

The Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the David Suzuki Foundation say the 10 projects should be treated as a single large undertaking, given their cumulative impact downstream. This would then make it necessary to complete another environmental assessment treating the 10 projects as one.

While the tributaries do not contain fish, the Holmes River is home to Chinook salmon, and the conservation groups say they are concerned that the water diversion involved in 10 hydro stations could impact a salmon population that feeds into the Fraser River, they say.

The judge ruled that the Holmes Hydro project may proceed without an environmental assessment for the combined projects, since the projects can operate independently and the developer has already invested $2M in the project.

Peterson says he is very pleased with the decision and says they will be proceeding with the IPP.

“It was a milestone that had to be reached. The investors were watching to see what happened.”

Holmes Hydro Inc, in conjunction with ecoTECH Energy Group and Snowshow Power Ltd are pooling their efforts to build a new transmission line from McBride to the Valemount substation. The 138 kV transmission line would be built by the independent power producers who need the line to proceed with their run-of-river and biomass plants. Once the line is built, it would be turned over to BC Hydro and the initial investors paid back. According to the Province, a new transmission line would take four to five years to plan, permit and construct. It would bring more stability and industry-potential to the McBride area.

Peterson says he is in close contact with partners such as ecoTECH Energy Group in order to plan for the transmission line.

“There’s a lot going on right now. We’re working on it.”

In early April, Chief Rita Matthew said the Simpcw First Nation will oppose the proposed Holmes Hydro hydro-electric project and the Holmes River transmission line until certain conditions are met and she said they are considering a legal challenge. The projects fall in the Simpcw’s traditional territory south of McBride.

Chief Matthew could not be reached by presstime.

By: Laura Keil