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Construction begins on Ashlu River power project

Ledcor Power Inc. began construction on a contentious Ashlu River independent power project on Thursday, Aug. 10, despite the Squamish Lillooet Regional District's (SLRD) refusal to allow rezoning and heavy opposition by the river's user group.

Ledcor Power Inc. began construction on a contentious Ashlu River independent power project on Thursday, Aug. 10, despite the Squamish Lillooet Regional District's (SLRD) refusal to allow rezoning and heavy opposition by the river's user group.

Both the kayaking community and Ledcor spokespersons levelled accusations at each other in their arguments regarding the project's impact. The biggest disagreement revolves around the impact on water levels of the world-class whitewater kayaking river.

Ledcor project manager Kelly Boychuk said that the project would create a longer paddling season. Water levels would be reduced to "optimal levels" during the spring when the river is typically too high to paddle, and the scheduled flow releases during the weekends of the spring and late summer/early fall would ensure that kayaking could still be enjoyed every weekend in the spring, summer and fall, according to the Ledcor website.

"Stories like it's going to wreck the river, there's never going to be any kayaking again are so blown out of proportion because it's simply fiction, not fact," said Boychuk.

But Whitewater Kayaking Association of BC (WKABC) spokesperson Stuart Smith disagreed with Ledcor's assertions, saying the season will be reduced by 75 per cent.

"When they continue to say that the season will be enhanced, it'll be better for paddlers, it's just B.S.," said Smith. "This is has been the problem with their approach from the very beginning, they keep laying out this mumbo jumbo and for the people that don't know anything about it, it sounds reasonable. But it's pretty easy to look at the facts. If you could plot that and look at the amount of water they're going to take out, you can see quite clearly on paper without any interpretation that the season will be reduced by about 75 per cent."

Boychuk said that once the construction is complete, the company will involve kayakers by providing online water flow information, and will even honour kayakers' requests to increase or decrease flow levels.

"Given 24 hours notice, they can say 'On Saturday, we want flows to be so high and on Sunday so high' then it'll be there, assuming, of course, that there's water there to do it with," said Boychuk.

Following the SLRD's decision to disallow the Ashlu project, the provincial government passed Bill 30 in June, taking away any regional district's authority to decide power project rezoning applications on Crown Land and in effect reversing the SLRD decision, drawing the ire of the area's politicians.

Boychuk said he doesn't know whether the bill passed as a reaction to the SLRD decision, but the bill is a good thing in the long run."There was a very cold wind that blew through the industry with the SLRD decision because they saw that you could go through federally and provincially get all your permits in place, do everything to the letter, and at the very last step, a regional government can put a stick in the spokes and stop everything," he said.

Smith said he's frustrated that all the work done by residents and the district was in vain.

"We went through years of a process to have it compromised by some political back room stuff," said Stuart. "Clearly the local government didn't support it. They went through the trouble of hearing it, and it was clear that most people weren't in favour of it. To have the province put forward a political solution that doesn't really address all the concerns that people had, it's really disappointing."

Boychuk said he's not happy that the community may not welcome Ledcor, but the company is staying focussed on the bigger picture.

"It would have been nice to be welcomed with open arms, but you take the cards that you're dealt with," he said. "Last year up to 12 per cent of all the power in BC was getting imported by the States. This year it'll be 15 per cent. BC Hydro anticipates in the next 20 to 25 years, it could escalate to 40 to 45 per cent. If we're going to do something proactive, we might as well build here in BC, using BC labour, [with] taxes going to the province. Or we can pull electricity south of border where we simply sign a cheque and say 'thank you very much.'"

Tree clearing is now taking place 21 miles (34 km) north of Squamish, along the power project's transmission line right-of-way, at the powerhouse, tunnel portal and water intake areas in the Squamish Nation-owned Tree Forest Licence 38.

Ledcor estimates that $10 million will be spent locally on services, sub-contractors, and workers over the project construction period. The project will offer up to 60 full-time construction jobs for the two-and-a-half years it takes to complete the project, according to a Ledcor news release.

Logging activities are currently being performed by JGT Logging Inc. - a Squamish-based company that has been logging in TFL 38 for several decades - and by contractors from the Northwest Squamish Logging Partnership, a wholly owned company by the Squamish First Nation. The tree-clearing work is anticipated to take up to one month to complete. When finished, the power project will supply enough electricity for 23,000 homes.

The Squamish Nation has been supportive of the project, describing it as environmentally sound. The Ledcor website has a PowerPoint presentation by the Squamish Nation environmental co-ordinator Randall Lewis, who explains the environmental benefits of the project.

The presentation states that concerns over fish habitat have been adequately addressed. Lewis points to the creation of 5,000 metres of new coho salmon rearing habitat, 500 linear metres of steelhead rearing habitat, a project-funded stewardship society for long-term habitat maintenance, new side channel habitat, a fish ladder to be installed at intake for steelhead, and the shifting of the powerhouse further upstream by 170 metres for longer buffer from salmon spawning area. Concerns over grizzly bear displacement are moot, states the presentation, since the Ministry of Environment has given their consent to the project.

But Smith said there are further concerns not being addressed. Issues of noise pollution, light pollution and excess traffic remain unanswered.

Boychuk said that Ledcor has created the Ashlu Foundation, a Squamish Valley fund to be managed by a board of directors made up of residents. The fund is meant to ensure that the area receives immediate benefits from the project, said Boychuk. An initial payment of $400,000 will be deposited into the fund with additional annual payments of $80,000 to be made for the next 20 years, for a total of $2 million.

The Ledcor news release also stated that traffic concerns have been mitigated and public access to Ashlu Creek during the construction period will continue. A full time, 24/7 safety and security officer will be available during construction to inform the public of the daily construction activities and locations where building is taking place.

As construction activities continue into the fall of 2006, meetings will be organized by Ledcor and the Squamish Nation with the residents of the Squamish Valley to inform them of the work activities and schedules.

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