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Zeidler wants local meeting on Bute IPP

Scale of project is large enough to warrant expanded hearings



A councillor with the Resort Municipality of Whistler wants to see a public meeting close to town about a massive run of river project planned for the Bute Inlet.

Eckhard Zeidler, a second-term councillor with the RMOW, put forward a resolution at a recent council meeting asking B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) to arrange a "convenient opportunity" for Whistler residents to attend an open house on the project.

The EAO is a joint office between the federal and provincial governments that prescribes a multi-staged process for an environmental assessment of a project. The process has two public comment periods, and one for the Bute project has just passed. It included public meetings in Campbell River, Powell River and Sechelt.

These were difficult for Sea to Sky residents to attend, and Zeidler feels something needs to happen a little closer to home.

"The Sea to Sky corridor has experienced considerable activity around the planning and construction of independent power projects," said a letter addressed to the EAO as part of the resolution. "Many of our community members have an interest in this growing industry and its impacts."

The proposed project for Bute Inlet, north of Campbell River on the mainland, is a facility with a generating capacity of 1,027 MW - more than 20 times the capacity of the Ashlu Creek project and over seven times the size of the Ryan River project planned for Pemberton.

Project proponent Plutonic Power Inc., a company that has approximately 40 licenses on B.C. rivers, wants to build 17 facilities that will divert flows from high elevations and into generating stations that will produce the electricity.

The power will then flow into a 226-km transmission line to a proposed substation near the Southgate River. From there it will travel through another 219 km of transmission line to the Malaspina substation near Earls Cove, according to the project's terms of reference.

The project is of a magnitude that has provincial significance, according to Zeidler, and open houses ought to be held outside the Sunshine Coast.

"I think there should not just be a meeting in Vancouver to inform the public but potentially around the province," he said. "The citizens of the province should understand what's going on."

Independent power producers (IPPs) such as the facility at Bute Inlet are a hot topic in the Sea to Sky corridor and will likely continue to be right up until the May 12 provincial election.

Proponents of such facilities, which are touted by the government for having "zero net greenhouse gases," feel they're important to meet B.C.'s energy needs and help wean the province off its dependence on electricity from Alberta, which is generated through coal burning and natural gas.

Critics, however, feel that having private companies run these facilities amounts to "privatizing" B.C. rivers, effectively a "gold rush" that has involved companies buying up licenses on rivers in order to develop on them. They also worry that they're being developed without a master plan.

B.C.'s 2002 energy plan directed BC Hydro to seek out new opportunities for power generation through the private sector. BC Hydro could continue to develop projects it was already working on, but new projects would have to come through private companies.

Zeidler, for one, agrees with the "gold rush" assessment and feels that the projects ought to be run through the public sector.

"There's absolutely a place for IPPs, but in a comprehensive planned fashion, not in this gold rush mentality," he said. "I am not a supporter of moving the assets of the people of British Columbia into private producers' hands."

Monika Nitschke, a spokeswoman for Plutonic Power Corporation, said it's unlikely that meetings will be held outside the Sunshine Coast and that no more meetings will be held until the fall, when the company formally submits its application for an environmental assessment certificate.

"I wouldn't expect anything until at least the fall," she said.

Kathy Eichenberger, a project assessment director with the Environmental Assessment Office, echoed Nitschke's words, saying it isn't likely that any meetings will be held outside communities close to Bute Inlet.

"We hold open houses in communities that are in closest proximity to, and are potentially most directly impacted by a proposed project," she said. "That's what we've done, we've held open houses in Powell River, Sechelt, Campbell River, and there's also just been a community meeting on Quadra Island."

The environmental assessment process, she said, offers an opportunity for public comment. The Bute Inlet project alone has taken 1,500 comments from people throughout the province, according to Eichenberger.

"Their comments are considered and addressed equally to any other comments from any other communities," she said. "We feel that the process is open province-wide."