Alcan Smelters and Chemicals Ltd Feeds While Nechako River Chokes

Each agreement seems designed to give Alcan whatever it wants, and each agreement is worse than the previous one.

by Denis Wood

The lead item on the CBC National Radio News at 6 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1997 announced the out-of-court settlement of a court case between Alcan Smelters and Chemicals Ltd and the province of British Columbia.

The agreement was hailed by the signing parties as achieving three objectives: the end of outstanding legal proceedings, security for the future of Alcan’s smelter operations in Kitimat, and certainty for the future of the Nechako River.

Well, the first two … maybe. Time will tell about the smelter operations at Kitimat. As for the future of the Nechako River, about all that’s certain is that it will continue to choke to death for lack of water, water that is not required to provide for Alcan’s needs, but to feed Alcan’s insatiable greed.

Included in the deal was a water licence authorizing Alcan to divert 90% of the flows of the Nechako River, 2 % more than Alcan’s Kemano Completion Project (KCP) originally called for. It also confirmed Alcan’s ownership of the uncompleted diversion tunnel.

The current state of the Nechako results from three documents, each worse than the previous in terms of the health of the river. An agreement in 1950 gave Alcan the rights to divert both the upper Nechako and the Nanika Rivers of North Central BC, to fill the huge Nechako Reservoir and provide water to Alcan’s electric power generators at Kemano.

In 1987, to settle an outstanding court case between Alcan and the federal government, Alcan was granted the right to divert 88% of the upper Nechako River while surrendering its claim to the Nanika.

Then, in 1997, to settle a court case between Alcan and the BC government, Alcan was given a final water licence for 90% of the river even though only about 50% (96 cubic metres per second) of the water is needed to provide Alcan’s electrical needs at the Kitimat smelter. The surplus is sold to BC Hydro, which in turn retails some of this electricity into the United States, in one case providing for the electrical needs of an aluminum smelter in Washington State.

BC’s NDP government and Alcan, in glossy advertising campaigns, convinced many that this latest deal between them addressed all the outstanding issues on the Nechako. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What follows is a little bit of recent history.

In 1995, following the release of the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) report on the Kemano Completion Project, Premier Mike Harcourt cancelled KCP. Unfortunately, he did not withdraw provincial government support for the 1987 agreement on which KCP was based. A series of negotiations about possible compensation to Alcan for the cancellation of the project were conducted between the parties for about a year and a half, with no result.

In June 1996, upon the invitation of the Fraser Basin Management Program (later to become the Fraser Basin Council), many people who had supported the river and its well-being attended an “exploratory workshop” at the Stoney Creek Reserve, south of Vanderhoof, BC.

Also attending was a large delegation representing the interests of Alcan, Kemano, Kitimat, and Terrace. These were people who, all of a sudden, had an interest in “exploring” two themes:

  • “On what basis would you be willing to work with others seeking solutions for the long-term well-being of the Nechako River and sustaining its aquatic resources?
  • “Is there a willingness to work together, regardless of our many differences, to develop a cooperative management process that would accomplish common goals?”

Through a series of skilful manoeuvres by parties representing the interests of Alcan and the communities of the northwest, all efforts by those with interests in the original purpose were defeated in efforts to effect meaningful change in the state of a very sick river.

The provincial government, by manipulating the “principals for sustainability” of the Fraser Basin Council, managed to keep defenders of the river embroiled in the useless process of forming a Nechako Watershed Council. Using the Fraser Basin Council’s principles of “inclusivity” and “recognition of existing agreements,” Alcan and its allies were able to ensure this process would go nowhere.

Fourteen months after the initial meeting and before the group could even agree upon its terms of reference, the Glen Clark NDP government cut a deal with Alcan behind closed doors to settle the court case that it was reported to have claimed it couldn’t lose.

Those of us with a love of the river and nothing else to support our activities, having spent countless hours in meetings which accomplished nothing, were furious. The one issue which had been continually stressed in the meetings, which were faithfully attended by representatives of Alcan and the provincial government, was that the Nechako’s defenders must have input into any agreement between Alcan and the government. We were ignored! Alcan got everything it dreamed of getting. The Nechako got nothing.

For example, under the terms of the 1987 Settlement Agreement between Alcan and Canada, a water release facility at Kenny Dam (which would introduce cold water directly into the river during the summer, to assist migrating sockeye) became part of the Kemano Completion Project. Cost estimates were in the range of $200 million.

It was Alcan’s responsibility to build this facility. The 1987 Settlement Agreement required that until this facility was built, additional water would have to be released into the Nechako River, during the warmest part of the summer, for temperature control. The volume of these “cooling flows” is 15.2 cubic metres per second annual average flow. Once the Kenny Dam Release Facility was built, these cooling flows would no longer be required, allowing Alcan to store the 15.2 cm/s for additional power production.

This facility was a part of KCP, but upon the government’s cancelling the project, Alcan took the position it was no longer its responsibility. Under the 1997 agreement, the cost of the facility (about $200 million) will now be shared between Alcan and the province, with Alcan’s maximum contribution being $40 million.

In November 1997, on behalf of the group trying to form a meaningful Nechako Watershed Council, the Fraser Basin Council sent a written request to the government and Alcan. This letter asked for a commitment that the “cooling flows be permanently dedicated to the Nechako River even if a water release facility was constructed at Kenny Dam.” The request that this water continue to be released into the river was rejected by both Alcan and Paul Ramsey, the minister in charge of the issue.

At this point, those of us with interests in saving the river resigned from the Fraser Basin Council-sponsored process to form a new group called the Nechako River Alliance. The remaining group, now controlled by Alcan and its allies from Kitimat/Terrace, and unencumbered by our presence, agreed on terms of reference within a matter of months.

A recent analysis of the group that became the Nechako Watershed Council presents an interesting picture. Of the 15 organizations that met in Kemano from Sept. 11-13, 1998 (the first meeting following the inaugural meeting two months earlier), seven represent interests (in Kitimat, Kemano, and Terrace) that are best served by the continued or increased diversions of water away from the Nechako.

Four of the remaining members represent provincial, regional, and municipal governments.

The balance represent two economic development agencies and a cattlemen’s association in Vanderhoof, and a Native Indian band from the Prince George area.

This is hardly a group that is likely to achieve any improvement in the health of the river. In fact, most will not even acknowledge the river has a problem.

The Nechako River Alliance (NRA), on the other hand, contains nine groups ranging from residents of the upper Nechako to those who harvest and process salmon on the coast. Its inaugural meeting took place in Vanderhoof, in June 1998. Within six months, the Alliance had submitted a proposal for a scientific study of the needs of the river.

This study is to be conducted outside of the constraints of industry’s water requirements. The proposal received support from the David Suzuki Foundation, the Georgia Strait Alliance, and the Northwest Institute for Bioregional Studies (Smithers, BC).

In November of 1998, the proposal was submitted to the Nechako Environmental Enhancement Fund Management Committee, set up by the 1997 BC/Alcan agreement. To date, no response has been received. In the meantime, the status quo continues and the river suffers.

What can readers do? Write to Paul Ramsey, Minister of Education and the minister in charge of Alcan relations. Ask him to encourage and support the Nechako Environmental Enhancement Fund Management Committee to emphasize the needs of the river, and, in this context at least, to ignore commercial uses for the water.

* Contact: Paul Sanborn, Allied Rivers Commission, Box 293, Vanderhoof, BC V0J 3A0.

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