Guest Editorial, from Mitchell Shnier …
For the past ten years the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has been strongly advocating for a proponent they have selected to construct a hydro-electric generating station at the Bala falls (25 km north-west of Gravenhurst).
Below are some examples of why this proposed project has been a series of mistakes, misinformation, and misunderstandings – and therefore should not proceed. Basically, the proposed project would be too big, too ugly, and too dangerous.
However, starting October 20, 2014, the proponent intends to cut down all the trees on the site and remove the top-soil and then stop work until June 2015 when they hope to have all the required permits and contracts in place. So urgent action is required.
- This entire process started with a major blunder as both the MNR and the proponent thought the Crown land property on which the proposed generating station was to be built was much larger than it actually is. Since then they both have shown that avoiding inconvenient truths is an acceptable response to fair and relevant questions from the public.
- Recognizing that the location is a “tourist gem”, in their original 2005 proposal, the proponent committed that the proposed station would be below road level – but we now know it would not.
- The proponent also committed that the station would be “run-of-river”, but we now know it would instead be operated using cycling operation which is dangerous to both swimmers that will be nearby and boaters that need to travel through this unpredictable fast water to reach the nearby public and private docks. At many other times in the summer, the proposed station would operate at maximum capacity, creating even more danger to both swimmers and boaters that frequent this popular tourist area, yet somehow this was not of concern to Transport Canada even though they are responsible for assessing impacts to marine navigation.
- The proponent evades answering and refuses to admit that they would need to fence-off Margaret Burgess Park forever (this is the Crown land directly north of the Bala north falls). While this is the main vantage point for viewing the Bala north falls and from which people wade into the usually calm water, fencing would become necessary in an attempt to keep people away from the extreme danger this proposed project would create.
- Other Southern Ontario hydro-electric generating stations just don’t have Bala’s combination of; the falls being so important to the area’s economy, and the proposed generating station being so dangerous to visitors and residents. But the multi-year farce of environmental assessment process just blindly accepted any statement made by the proponent.
- Also meaningless was that the proponent was required to provide an economic impact study, but this did not ask for or report on any negative impacts, nor were any tourists interviewed. This study therefore clearly cannot provide any information on the net impact, yet the Ministry of the Environment found this acceptable.
- The proponent has stated their current proposal would have a positive impact on the historic Bala Portage when in fact it would actually obstruct and eliminate it. The Bala Portage is culturally important as written historical evidence has been provided that it was created and used by First Nations before 1837. There are no acceptable alternate routes, yet somehow this was not of concern to Transport Canada even though they are responsible to ensure portaging remains available.
- Two First Nations have given notice that the federal and provincial government’s Duty to Consult has not been fulfilled.
- The provincial government frequently justifies this proposed generating station by stating that there used to be a generating station on this site. However; the flow from that station was less than 10% of the proponent’s proposal, that station’s flow was directed away from the important recreational area at the base of the north falls, and that station was small enough that the Bala Portage was not obstructed. The station that used to be on the site is simply no justification for the too-big station proposed.
- The proponent would allow only 6% of the flow over the Bala falls throughout most of the year compared to Niagara Falls which is required to have at least 50% of the flow over the falls. Adequate scenic flow is just as important to the Bala area’s economy.
- It would make 400’ of the only public shoreline in Bala too dangerous to be near, and would obstruct the view down the river – the main reason passers-by currently stop. It would also eliminate the reason people have their weddings in Bala and photographs and painters come to Bala, for the view of the falls and the natural surroundings. This would remove an important contributor to Bala’s fragile economy.
Recently, an award-winning documentary film maker has announced he is working on “developing a film around the grassroots movement that’s opposing the power plant” – as the proposed project is so clearly wrong and the community’s opposition so broad and relentless.
Ten years ago, the Ministry of Natural Resources began a Competitive Site Release process to select a proponent to construct a hydro-electric generating station on Crown land at the Bala north falls (this is 25 km north-west of Gravenhurst, and 2 hours north of Toronto).
Since then, the process has been a continual stream of misunderstanding the area and situation, with the provincial government desperately pushing ahead regardless of all fact and reason. Examples are provided below (click on the underlined links for more detail).
- The MNR’s initiation of this proposed project in 2004 and 2005 showed they and the proponent did not know where the property boundaries were of the Crown land on which the proposed generating station was to be built as the proponent’s accepted qualification and proposal documents showed much of the proposed project being built on land which the Crown did not own. The MNR and proponent still refuse to admit this mistake, and this seems to have set the culture of this proposal that the MNR and proponent feel it is acceptable to evade and avoid inconvenient truths rather than having an honest and transparent discussion as would be professional and honourable.
- The proponent’s 2005 proposal:
- Acknowledged that the site is “a tourist gem” and committed to respecting this. For example, the proposal stated the proposed station’s “roof will be below road level and only some 5 ft above ground level”. However, the roof would actually be at least 20′ above the road (proposal renege #1).
- Stated the generating station would be “run-of-river”, but we now know it would actually operate in a cycled mode, starting operation at about noon on more than 1/3 of summer days. This would be extremely dangerous as this is exactly when people would most likely be in the playing in the Moon River just a few feet from the treacherously-turbulent water which would silently and without warning begin exiting the proposed station. Being automatically- and remotely-operated, people would not be able to predict these unnatural, rapid, and unexpected changes in flow (proposal renege #2).
- Stated their project would “will not generally diminish the public’s enjoyment of the area for swimming, boating, fishing …” and in Section 126.96.36.199 of the proponent’s 2009 Environmental Screening Report the proponent acknowledged the importance of in-water recreational activities “Lake Muskoka (upstream of North Bala Dam) and Moon River (downstream of North Bala Dam) are popular boating, swimming, scuba diving and recreational fishing areas. The land alongside the falls is used for recreation and a number of benches are provided for public use. Many of these recreational uses take place at the base of Bala Falls.”
But please note the following:
- The MNR has recently stated “it would be the direct responsibility of Swift River Energy Limited to ensure appropriate public safety measures are in place”. The MNR has also required the proponent have the responsibility to maintain Margaret Burgess Park (this is the Crown land directly north of the Bala north falls). Clearly it would be in the proponent’s interest to be overly-cautious about any safety concerns – at the expense of the area’s economy.
- The proponent has provided the evasive reply “We have no plans to fence off the park” – which is exactly the type of meaningless and frustrating response from the proponent that rightfully annoys the community.
- Did you know that the generating station at the Bracebridge falls and the two generating stations upstream of it all have barbed-wire fencing, and that the same operator would be responsible for the proposed Bala station (and they obviously know how to put up ugly fencing).
- The proposed project being just a few feet from the acknowledged and important in-water recreational area at the base of the falls would create new and extreme dangers.
- As the proponent has not had a public safety study done, it is clear they would eventually simply announce the inevitable that their lawyers or insurance company has required them to fence-off Margaret Burgess Park as they would need to show they are attempting to keep people from endangering themselves.
This would certainly “diminish the public’s enjoyment of the area” (proposal renege #3). It is wrong that the proponent be selected through a competitive process and yet they can renege on these (and several other) important commitments.
Furthermore, the proponent is scheming to hide the truth from us until it is too late. This would be an unacceptable change to Bala, and the proponent’s evasiveness in not being truthful about this makes a mockery of their claims of public consultations.
The taxpayers of Ontario should not be forced to pay a $100,000,000 subsidy to a proponent with such business ethics.
- I have personally visited 18 hydro-electric generating stations in southern Ontario and can report that the Bala falls are unique, as only the Bala falls:
- Drive the area’s economy, as that is the main reason people visit Bala, and the falls are right in the middle of Bala.
- Have nearby stores and restaurants which get a substantial portion of their business from such visitors. Literally bus-loads of tourists come to visit and photograph the Bala falls, which have been cited three times by National Geographic as world-class.
- Are accessible as they are directly adjacent to a main road, have free parking, do not have fencing, have rocks to climb on, and have a near-by park and washrooms.
- Have in-water recreation and docks within 50’ of the falls.
- Have residences within 200’ of the proposed generating station.
Other generating stations just don’t have the combination of the falls being so important to the area’s economy, and the generating station being so close to and dangerous to people’s residences and in-water recreation.
- In their 2012 Environmental Screening Report, the proponent stated their current design would have a “positive impact to portage”. However it would actually obstruct and eliminate the Bala Portage, which was created by and used by the First Nations of the area.
- The proponent is providing incorrect information on a very important topic.
- Suggested alternate portage routes all either trespass over private property or are not safe.
This is unacceptable.
- The proponent and the Ontario government justify the proposed generating station by citing that there used to be a generating station on the site, but:
- That previous station did not obstruct the portage.
- The proposed generating station would have more than ten times the flow and 25 times the footprint – that is as much larger as a 5-bedroom house is to a small garden shed.
- This flow was directed away from the in-water recreational area.
That is, the previous station is simply no justification for the proposed station, which would be too big, too ugly, and too dangerous.
- The proponent would allow only 6% of the water over the Bala falls throughout most of the year. In contrast, international treaty requires that 50% of the flow of the Niagara River go over the Niagara Falls during daylight hours in the spring and summer (the rest of the flow is diverted through hydro-electric generating stations).
The Bala falls are just as important to the area’s economy, so why no requirements for a fair scenic flow in Bala. People won’t come to Bala to see the dry rocks where the falls used to be. On six weekends of the year the proponent has stated they would provide a few percent more flow. The economy of Bala is important every day, this is a token rather than meaningful concession.
- The above two points show a major problem with this entire process. There is no requirement for balance. The proponent is simply given permission to proceed, and being a for-profit company with no requirements to actually make changes as a result of public input, the proponent becomes greedy.
They are trying to build as large a station as would fit, taking as much water as they can. These are public lands and this is public water, yet the proponent is trying to do whatever they want, with the strong support of the MNR – which has no responsibility to let the public know what is happening.
- The proposed generating station would operate at its full capacity an average of 21 days every summer.
- This would bring the dangerously fast water that usually enters the Moon River through the Bala south channel over 250’ closer to the in-water recreational area at the base of the Bala north falls.
- This would also affect marine navigation, as boats would need to pass through this fast water to reach the only public docks on the Moon River, or to reach the three private docks that are even closer to the proposed station.
This would be creating yet another danger to the public.
An interesting recent development is that Rob Stewart, the director of the award-winning documentary Sharkwater has announced that the wide-spread and justified community opposition to this proposed project would be the subject of his next film.
Another recent development is that area First Nations (the Wahta Mohawks and the Shawanaga First Nation, so far) have noted that the proponent provided incorrect information concerning the Bala Portage and therefore the consultation has been inadequate. The Wahta, the Township of Muskoka Lakes, and the District Municipality of Muskoka have therefore asked the proponent and MNR to ensure the federal and provincial government’s Duty to Consult is fulfilled before any work commences.
Too many major issues have been ignored, and this is a proposed project which should not proceed, as it would be too big, too ugly, and too dangerous.