Gulf Islands Driftwood (Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada), March 14, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: A Court in British Columbia, Canada, has halted construction of a high-voltage power line, partly based on precautionary arguments.]

By Stacy Cardigan Smith

[See last week's Precaution Reporter story on this subject.]

Gulf Islands residents living near the overhead power lines can breathe a tentative sign of relief as work ceases on the transmission line project for now.

"What we've done is agreed at this time that we won't be doing any further work east of the Salt Spring sub-station," said Sharon Wasylik, BCTC community relations coordinator Monday.

The sub-station is located at the corner of Lower Ganges and Atkins roads and includes parts of Salt Spring, Parker and Galiano islands.

However, work will continue on the portion of Salt Spring located to the west of the sub-station, as well as in North Cowichan.

According to Wasylik, work had not yet begun, save for an osprey nest being relocated on Salt Spring last week.

The halt comes following pressure from groups involved in a B.C. Court of Appeal case related to the project.

When the appeal was granted to Island Residents Against High Voltage Overhead Lines (IRAHVOL) and Tsawwassen Residents Against High Voltage Overhead Lines (TRAHVOL), BCTC agreed to cease construction, Wasylik said.

"Unfortunately, it now appears there was a misunderstanding of what constituted overhead line construction work," she said. "We kind of considered it pre-construction. They considered it construction."

Wasylik said pre-construction activity, including brush clearing and road preparation, will continue as per discussions between both sides' lawyers.

However, IRAHVOL representative Daria Zovi responded in an e-mail: "The recent decision to halt construction... following media coverage of the issue and requests from IRAHVOL's legal counsel is welcomed with reservations by IRAHVOL. A complete stop to all construction of this proposed power line would be the proper response by B.C. Hydro and BCTC as two issues are before the B.C. Court of Appeal."

Right to appeal was granted November 7, 2006 on two grounds.

The first concerns whether the existing right of way agreements allow for project construction.

"British Columbia Utilities Commissioners should not have assumed that the existing right of way agreements, acquired over 50 years ago, permit the construction of the proposed project," wrote Zovi.

The second concerns whether the "precautionary principle" should be applied by tribunals. The principle is "a general principle of conduct" that many countries have applied, said Zovi.

It states that in situations of "uncertainty where risk is considerable and long lasting, the decision makers should choose the course of caution so they should decide for a very conservative route because of the uncertainties," she added.

"British Columbia Utilities Commissioners were obligated to apply the precautionary principle, which they failed to do when they considered the health risks associated with long-term exposure to the electromagnetic field generated by the proposed transmission lines," she said.

Zovi is also critical that BCTC has not informed property owners about the court appeal.

Although the initial right to appeal was granted November 7, 2006 and the second ground was granted on February 12, letters announcing that the appeal has been granted and pre-construction will cease immediately had yet to be distributed on Tuesday.

Wasylik said the letters are expected to go out this week.

"When it's sort of major things that impact whether we are or aren't going to proceed, then we let [property owners] know," Wasylik said.

According to Zovi, "Omission to notify the public and property owners of this crucial legal process that may overturn the British Columbia Utilities Commission approval of the project, is, in IRAHVOL's view, equivalent to false information."

The pre-construction is also a potential waste of public money if the appeal is successful, Zovi said.

"It is part of what we need to do to meet our in-service date and we're proceeding with that," countered Wasylik.

She added the project has a budget of $250 million and its in-service date is fall 2008.

The Municipality of Hudson, Quebec won a ground-breaking case to regulate the cosmetic use of pesticides using the same precautionary principle in June 2001.

Zovi said IRAHVOL is currently attempting to gain support from the World Wildlife Fund and the Suzuki Foundation, among other organizations.

"Now that we're discussing this big principle, it's important that we have people representing these other groups."

Zovi added the case might eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.

"[I don't know if the] best forum [for the case] is the Court of Appeal, but if we have to go to the Supreme Court of Canada, we'll have to decide on that," Zovi said.

For the past two years, IRAHVOL has been advocating a submarine and underground DC cable system which goes directly to Vancouver Island and bypasses the Gulf Islands.