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Fracking ban warranted to protect some of British Columbia’s biggest dams, FOI documents reveal

he WAC Bennett dam impounds the world’s seventh-largest reservoir. In 2012 a BC Hydro employee speculated a fracking operation may have caused a sudden change in the reservoir’s water levels. Photo courtesy Jayce Hawkins.

Fracking should be immediately banned close to BC Hydro’s two existing Peace River dams as well as the Site C dam construction project until a full public inquiry determines whether a comprehensive ban is warranted, the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says. 

The CCPA issued the call today after reviewing hundreds of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, which shows that BC Hydro’s Peace Canyon Dam could fail in the aftermath of an earthquake triggered by fracking operations. 

“Allowing natural gas industry fracking and disposal well operations to occur anywhere near these dams is lunacy and that includes Site C,” says Dave Unger, a former BC Hydro construction manager who oversaw $350 million in refurbishment projects at the Peace Canyon and W.A.C. Bennett dams in 2007, and who is speaking out publicly for the first time about his concerns. 

“There should be outright bans on activities that could trigger earthquakes near the region’s dams, otherwise we may reach a dangerous tipping point where one of these dams fails,” he said. 

Unger personally experienced three “felt events” while working at the Peace Canyon Dam in 2007—events that coincided with encroaching natural gas drilling operations. 

In November 2018, the second-largest fracking-induced earthquake in BC was triggered at a fracking operation 20 kilometres from the Site C project, resulting in a “strong jolt” at the site. 

Ben Parfitt, CCPA resource policy analyst who filed the FOI request, says while the risk of a dam failure may be remote, the FOI documents indicate that it could happen with potentially deadly consequences for residents and workers downstream. 

“We need an immediate ban on fracking within 10 kilometres of the Peace River from the W.A.C. Bennett to Site C dams, and strict limits on fracking for 15 kilometres beyond that unless a neutral body of experts rules there is no possibility for induced earthquakes,” Parfitt said. “Then the BC government must do the right thing and launch a full public inquiry into whether fracking is acceptable in any form whatsoever in the Peace River region given the known risks.” 

The FOI documents include a letter written in January 2018 by BC Hydro legal counsel Jeff Christian to the BC Oil and Gas Commission’s vice-president, Mayka Kennedy. The Commission regulates fossil fuel companies and Christian warns: 

“BC Hydro remains opposed to any waste water injection and fracking in close proximity to the Peace Canyon Dam and any such critical infrastructure, due to the large uncertainties in the hazard, the likelihood of occurrence and the potential consequences.” 

Despite such warnings, the Oil and Gas Commission has not permanently cancelled controversial well approvals, including a disposal well just 3.3 kilometres from the Peace Canyon Dam. The well is currently suspended, but the Commission has said it will allow resumption of operations if certain conditions are met—a decision that prompted Christian’s warning letter. 

The Commission also recently ruled that Canadian Natural Resources can resume fracking at the same location where it triggered the November 2018 4.5 magnitude earthquake that forced a worker evacuation at Site C. 

Other documents released in response to the FOI show that BC Hydro has known since the 1970s that the Peace Canyon Dam was built on top of weak underlying rock that could break far more easily than originally thought. Because of the dam’s known “foundational problems,” even modest earthquakes could damage the dam. 

The largest earthquake to date known to be triggered by fossil fuel industry activities was 5.7 magnitude and was later linked to a disposal well operation in Oklahoma in 2011. That event was much stronger than the November 2018 earthquake in northern BC and was felt in at least 17 US states, buckled a local highway in three places and caused injuries. 

The CCPA is also calling for BC Hydro to conduct an immediate threat assessment at the Peace Canyon Dam and undertake all necessary seismic upgrades. It says the BC Utilities Commission should appoint supervisors or inspectors to address public safety and worker safety issues at the Peace Canyon and W.A.C. Bennett dams as well as at the Site C project, powers that it has under the provincial Utilities Commission Act

This report is part of the Corporate Mapping Project, which is jointly led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (BC & Saskatchewan offices) and the Parkland Institute. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

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