A decrepit, unsafe dam and hydroelectric facility is in line to receive more than $800 million in upgrades, but the plan to shore up the facility doesn’t sit well with residents downstream.
The 80 year-old Ruskin dam and powerhouse in Mission, B.C., requires a laundry list of renovations just to keep it running. Residents living at the foot of the dam fear that the noise and disruption from years of heavy construction will destroy their quality of life and decrease property value in the area.
“We all live out here for a reason and that was the quietness and the wilderness,” said Stewart Swingle, a representative for the Ruskin Townsite Residents Association. “How are they going to compensate us for destroying our quality of life?”
Construction on the proposed project would run 20 hours a day, six days a week, for five to six years, according to a BC Hydro application filed with the British Columbia Utilities Commission in February. The work is due to start in 2012.
BC Hydro did not respond to repeated requests for comment on compensation for Ruskin residents.
But a note on the BC Hydro website on the Ruskin upgrade said “we are committed to working as quickly as possible to complete the project and minimize disruption to local area residents. However, we recognize that construction work will disrupt traffic and impact visitors to recreation facilities around Hayward Lake Reservoir.”
Swingle said residents are just hoping to be reasonably compensated for years of disruption to their otherwise peaceful lives.
For Swingle, who lives within 600 metres of the dam, the construction might as well be in his front yard. He said some previous work on the dam relied on the use of a small park directly across the street from his home.
“There’s a staging area right in our park where they pick up and drop off heavy equipment, flood gates, and cranes,” he said.
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Swingle is concerned that heavy truck traffic, floodlit work sites and the unrelenting sound of machinery will make their community unlivable. He and the few dozen other residents of Ruskin want some guarantees from BC Hydro.
“We all realize that something has be done here, they have to close the dam or it has to be upgraded but there’s been no mention about what they’re going to do for us for dealing with this for so many years.”
Big capital, small output
The Ruskin facility has not received any significant upgrades or modifications since the 1950s.
The dam’s grey, weathered face stretches nearly 20 stories above the town. Heavy steel spillway gates regulate the flow from Hayward Reservoir to the Stave River below. Between the gates, six moss-covered, concrete piers partition the wall.
A grimy, asbestos-laden powerhouse that converts the flowing water into electricity sits next to the dam.
Substantial work is required to ensure the safety and reliability of both structures, according to BC Hydro reports. It estimates it will cost as much as $856.9 million and provide only a meagre increase in electricity output.
The project is emblematic of recent demand for large capital expenditure on aging low-output power facilities.
“We’ve deferred and put off investments for a decade and we’re now at a point where we need to re-invest in our system,” said Dave Cobb, the president and chief executive officer of BC Hydro, at a recent media conference call.
BC Hydro proposes to seismically upgrade the dam and powerhouse, install new piers, spillway gates, turbines and electricity equipment, and to shore up the hillside and bank located behind the facility.
The dam requires so much work that Hydro considered abandoning it altogether.
“We’re piece-mealing things now on infrastructure like this… ultimately we would have had to make the decision we either, in effect, rebuild this operation or we decommission it,” said Cobb.
BC Hydro commissioned two studies in 2010 to assess the alternatives. They considered options that ranged from derating the dam to boring a hole in its face and draining the reservoir. They produced figures from as little as $52 million to as much as $527 million. In the end, Hydro determined Ruskin should be refreshed and kept in service.
“We’re going to get the same output with a little bit of efficiency gain, but we’ll be able to rely on that output for the next 80 years,” said Chris O’Riley, a senior vice president at BC Hydro.
However, statements made by newly-appointed B.C. Energy Minister Rich Coleman suggest that BC Hydro may be forced to reconsider the options.
No rest for the village
“Right now all I can hear is birds, when these guys start up its going to be really really loud,” said Stewart Swingle, gesturing to the treed hillside behind his house.
“You move into a place like [Ruskin] knowing that there will be some noise from a facility like this, but generally its a very quiet neighbourhood.”
Swingle and the residents of fifteen other Ruskin households applied to the British Columbia Utilities Commission to ensure they have the opportunity to formally express their concerns on the proposed project.
William Andrews, an attorney with previous experience representing intervenors, said there is often no legal recourse for residents who are inconvenienced by construction projects.
“These things are fought by agencies that do major projects,” he said. “There’s a lot of projects going on and a lot of inconvenience associated with each one, so they fight tooth and nail against having to pay.”
But Andrews said there was some precedence for settling grievances over hydroelectric projects.
“BC Hydro, on very rare exceptions, has been directed to provide a program that responds to political pressure,” he said, referencing a highly publicized bid for compensation by Tsawwassen residents.
Hydro spent a reported $60 million in 2009 to settle the debate. The public utility purchased more than 100 properties that were affected by its installation of high-voltage overhead power lines.