A B.C. man camp operator’s well-intentioned plan to keep waste food out of the nearest landfill is colliding with the permanent food security impact of the hydro dam the camp was built to serve, raising tough questions about how socially responsible a contractor can be when the bigger-picture impact of the project is far beyond their control.
On one side of the story: A triumphant announcement late last month that Calgary-based ATCO Group, the City of Fort St. John, the local Salvation Army, and BC Hydro had managed to divert a “milestone” 50,000 pounds of surplus food from the “worker accommodation camp” at the Site C hydropower project. On the other: The prime farmland that Site C will take out of production, permanently destroying a resource that could feed a million people in perpetuity, according to the utility’s own calculations.
“Our vision is to deliver inspired solutions for a better world,” and “the success of this program in Fort St. John has inspired us to look where this project can be expanded to other areas in B.C.,” said ATCO Facilities Project Manager Brian Hussain in a release.
“Here you have a project that is destroying 30,000 acres of agricultural land, inundating half if it with water, and burying alluvial soil that has the capacity to produce the nutritional requirements of over a million people a year, forever,” farm journalist and retired agronomist Wendy Holm told The Energy Mix. “And they’re putting spin on waste on the procurement side of the operation and giving it to the food bank. I mean, c’mon.”
‘These Kids Are Fed’
The original media release traced the Food Donation Initiative back to November 2019, when the City of Fort St. John approached ATCO to divert its leftover meals as part of the community’s participation in the National Zero Waste Council. “Imagine there were kids who were coming to school without lunch every day and had to sit hungry all afternoon,” said Mayor Lori Ackerman. “Thanks to this donation, these kids are fed. They’re nourished and they’re able to focus on learning.”
Hussain told The Mix it’s “kind of the nature of the business” for a man camp to accumulate 50,000 pounds of spare food in four months, describing the facility as “essentially a cruise ship on land”.
With 12-hour shifts in heavy construction, “these guys are burning in excess of 5,000 to 6,000 calories on the work site alone, so they’re very hungry,” he explained. “So we have a requirement to give them options for food, to ensure proper nutrition as well as to give them some variety, because when they’re onsite and working we’re the only ones that provide them with food. They can’t go to the grocery store and cook their own.”
With 1,500 people in the camp, “we’re producing in excess of 6,000 meals a day,” he added. ATCO ups its food donation by taking meals out of circulation a day before their expiry date, giving the Salvation Army time to distribute them.
Hussain said he couldn’t comment on the trade-off between salvaged food and lost farmland. “We’re just here to do a job to provide food for the work force, so it wouldn’t be a question I could answer,” he said.
Holm attributed the availability of all that food to “mass inefficiency in procurement,” adding that it “mirrors perfectly the waste we’re seeing happening with Site C”.
How Much Farmland?
BC Hydro Community Relations Manager David Conway cited a project fact sheet, last updated in February 2018, that said 99% of the Class 1 to Class 5 farmland in the Peace Agricultural Region would be unaffected by the Site C project.
“While there will be a permanent loss of approximately 3,800 hectares of Class 1 to 5 lands, approximately 2.7 million hectares of Class 1 to 5 lands will remain available for agricultural production in the region,” the fact sheet states. “No changes are anticipated to the ability of the region to produce food to satisfy regional consumption.”
The provincial Crown utility cites the C$20 million it’s put into an agriculture compensation fund against the $220,000 calculated by the 2014 Joint Review Panel on Site C as the current value of the crops from the land to be inundated by the project.
But BC Hydro’s combined figure for Class 1 to 5 farmland equated the relatively scarce, prime soil at the top of the scale with classes defined by moderate to severe limitations. Holm called the fact sheet figures “disingenuous to the max and completely fallacious”, citing BC Hydro itself as the source for her argument that the region could feed a million people.
“Under flood reserve and expropriation for Site C since the 60s, the small amount of agricultural production left in the valley is in no way indicative of its potential,” she wrote in an email. “And it is not about regional consumption. It is about provincial food security for B.C.,” as well as the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
Peace Valley Landowner Association President Ken Boon said mitigation measures elsewhere in the region won’t replace the land lost in the valley. That means “the potential for an enormous increase in fruit and vegetable production from the river valley land will be lost due to Site C,” he told The Mix in an email.
Losing a ‘Truly Blessed Micro-Climate’
“The Peace region is home to a large agriculture base, and the vast majority of it is not in the narrow, low elevation river valley that will be impacted by Site C,” he explained. However, “you simply cannot compare the river valley capability to the rest of the Peace district. The river valley is truly blessed with a micro-climate, good soils, and of course good water available for irrigation. It also can be irrigated without harm to the soils, unlike most of the Peace district. That is why what we are losing is the only Class 1 farmland north of Quesnel in the province, and that cannot be mitigated.”
He added that B.C. has a shortage of farmland, “especially high-quality river bottom farmland,” and has to import food, partly due to past overbuilding of hydropower capacity.
“To put it bluntly,” Boon wrote, “it is madness to flood this valley for uneconomic power we do not need now. Especially here in B.C., we can build the cheaper, clean, and green renewables as we need them, and back them up with our already abundant hydro storage.”
ATCO’s food waste initiative has the enthusiastic support of the National Zero Waste Council, a circular economy initiative introduced by Metro Vancouver to “advance a waste prevention agenda that maximizes economic opportunities” for all Canadians.
“The National Zero Waste Council applauds the achievement of the City of Fort St. John, BC Hydro, ATCO, and Salvation Army for their innovative Food Donation Initiative,” Council Chair Jack Froese said in a prepared statement. “Preventing avoidable food waste on an industrial scale holds tremendous promise in mitigating the potential resource loss and related GHG emissions from landfilling organics, while delivering profound social benefits to equity-seeking community residents.”
Metro Vancouver Division Manager Ann Rowan said the council “does not have a position on the relative project costs and benefits of the Site C infrastructure project. Our mandate is strictly to advance waste prevention and the transition to circular economy, and with that in mind, we support the achievement of the project’s Food Donation Initiative.”