Tsawwassen Power Line Boondoggle

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Hardly Shocking: Tsawwassen Power Line Boondoggle
by Damien Gillis
According to this past weekend's cover story in the Province, the Campbell Government's brilliant plan to sell potentially cancer-causing homes to new families in Tsawwassen has proven a colossal failure.  This section of the community, along 53A St., is described by Kent Spencer in his article "High Voltage, Low Sales" (not available in full online) as a "ghost town," where entire blocks of houses now sit vacant.

104 homes were purchased by the Campbell Government over a year ago from former owners outraged by the government's ploughing of new high-voltage power lines through their backyards and over their lone high school. 
 
The 230,000-volt lines were double the power of the old ones they replaced - which residents had been told for years by BC Hydro would be coming down a few years ago and not replaced (those who would cast these folks as NIMBY's should bear this in mind).  
 
[For complete article reference links, please see original at The Common Sense Canadian here.]
 
Cancer Sale!

So far, only 28 out of 104 homes have sold - which should come as no surprise at all.  Would you buy a home that could result in your child contracting leukemia?  Would you take that chance, even if you got a deal on the place, even if the science wasn't 100%?  Imagine someone saying, "Unless you can prove to me this will kill my child or give me ovarian cancer, well, I've got no problem with it." (It's a wonder, then, that even 28 homes have sold!)  Apparently building on the popular Sleep Country "Mismatched Mattress Sale", the Campbell Government has come up with a cutting-edge real estate promo: The Cancer Sale!   Donald Trump, take note.
2008: An Electric Summer

[In July 2008, citizens peacefully stood their ground as BCTC construction workers entered one Tsawwassen family's backyard to install a new power pole]

My experience with this issue dates back to two years ago, when I spent several months going back and forth on an almost weekly basis to sunny Tsawwassen (I say that with intended irony, in light of the pall that has been cast over this wonderful little town in recent years by Campbell & co.)  In those visits I attended and documented various community meetings, rallies, and blockades - interviewing distressed residents, and ultimately producing a short documentary on the subject entitled "Crossing the Lines". My colleague Rafe Mair also spoke at several big rallies and public meetings, in solidarity with the community.

It was a summer of high drama and emotion - which saw mothers pitted against a government that did everything in its power to attack them: obtaining court injunctions, deploying police, and pursuing a vicious and deceitful PR campaign against the opponents of the power lines.  The crown corporation tasked as bag man for Campbell's plan, the BC Transmission Corporation (BCTC), used tax dollars to spy on and intimidate these families, following their every move by helicopter and by vehicle (one memorable incident was captured in a frantic 911 call by one of these brave ladies, describing in real time how she was being aggressively tailed through town).  They even hired a video production company to record and photograph the mothers and their children returning home from school and baseball games.  All this was eloquently described to the public on the steps of the BC Supreme Court by several of the four mothers named in the BCTC injunction.  The court action was sought to prevent the mothers from lawfully (they never once broke any law) barring access to their properties to erect the massive new power poles. Watch Clip
Why the backlash?

That summer, 2,500 citizens of all ages came together for a rally at South Delta Secondary - today overshadowed by the power poles that traverse the school grounds where children study and play.  It was probably the biggest gathering of its kind in the community's history - these were not folks generally prone to political protest.  There, the crowd heard from, among others, Dr. Jason Ford, Childhood Leukemia Specialist at Children's Hospital.  Holding up a pile of research papers from the world's top medical journals and universities - each with differing opinions on the subject - Dr. Ford said:

    "There's a lot of research into what causes childhood leukemia - and since this whole power line issue has come up in Tsawwassen, I've had a lot of questions from people here: 'Are my children going to be at risk?'  And I have to tell you I don't know.  And the sad fact is really nobody knows. This is an area of great controversy and intense research in the medical field... And the safe thing, when you don't know, is to bury the lines." [emphasis mine]

Dr. Ford was defining here the essence of the the Precautionary Principle.  A principle which Canada is committed to, based on a United Nations convention we and many other countries have signed.  But that's, of course, not how Gordon Campbell operates.
Why not bury the lines?
 
Campbell and then Energy Minister "Tricky Dick" Neufeld (who skipped town for the Senate a little after this fracas) repeatedly claimed residents had snubbed an earlier offer to bury the lines, so that option was now forever off the table.  Basically they were saying, "You snooze, you lose."

The reality is they did make a back-room offer to a few homeowners - but it was to bury the lines only one meter under ground, without the protective shielding required to make them safe (a little like handling weapons-grade plutonium with only rubber gloves for protection).

Father and daughter speak their minds at a 2008 South Delta Secondary rally, attended by 2,500 residents and supporters
The resulting EMF levels (the measurement for potentially cancerous electromagnetic radiation) for a child playing atop these lines (remember, they are actually in residents' back yards) would have been - and get this: UP TO 265 TIMES THE DANGER LEVEL FOR CANCER as identified by the head of the BC Cancer Research Centre, Dr. Richard Gallagher. Which gives you a teeny inkling why those folks might have rejected that offer...

The rationale Campbell finally settled on for pushing the power poles ahead was simply that the over-ground method was more cost-effective. thst's it.  Case closed.  Sorry ma'am, your child's life - just not cost-effective. I'm afraid there's nothing we can do.  Our hands are tied, you see.

The real numbers

Setting aside the considerable moral problem with placing "cost-effectiveness" ahead of human health, Campbell was - big surprise! - full of crap.  The cost to the taxpayer of not burying the lines has now far exceeded the cost of doing so. And that's not taking into account the financial and emotional tally of laying waste to a community and trampling on citizens' democratic rights.
So how do the numbers stack up?

    * Cost of properly burying and shielding the lines: Up to $24 million (depending on whether you believe the government's estimate or the engineers independently hired by Tsawwassen residents, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money, which pegged it at closer to half the government's number - I know which estimate I'm inclined to believe, but let's just say for our purposes it really was $24 million)

    * Price paid for 104 homes: $58.4 million

    * Additional cost to carry, upgrade, and resell the homes (i.e., financing, maintenance, security, marketing and sales fees, etc.): $22.9 million (which will only increase the longer the homes don't sell)

    * Amount recouped from sales thus far: approximately $17 million  

So as of right now, we taxpayers have lost more than $57 million on this deal!  And that's not counting the undisclosed price tag for erecting the towers compared to burying the lines - nor the costly legal, spying, and harassment campaign against the community.

So let's go ahead and call this what it is: an utter boondoggle that was entirely avoidable. Adding insult to injury, if the remaining homes do sell in the two years the government now thinks it will take, the money taxpayers manage to recoup will come at the expense of putting new, unsuspecting families in harm's way.  And that's what I call a lose-lose proposition.

Campbell, what was the point?!

I made several predictions when all the fuss over the power lines was going down. One was that we would end up losing money on these houses - that it would prove to have been cheaper (not to mention more morally upright) just to safely bury the lines and keep those families happy in their homes; the other was that this debacle would cost the Liberals a historically safe seat in Tsawwassen.

Despite her many virtues, Independent MLA Vicky Huntington (a contributor to this publication) would not have won her historic 2009 victory over former Liberal Attorney-General Wally Oppal in Tsawwassen were it not for this polarizing issue. The fact that Campbell pushed these lines through - over the rational, economically well-grounded objections of the public - is an example of extreme hubris. Speaking of hubris, let me now indulge in a little of my own and say, for the record: Gordon Campbell, I told you so.
The lesser of two evils?

When these remaining homes don't sell - and I hope, not for fiscal reasons but for moral ones that they don't - we will face an interesting calculus.  It may still prove more economical (especially if the residents' engineering study is correct) to tear down the lines and properly bury and shield them - thus rendering the homes safe and salable - than to allow the shadow cast by these power lines to drive more people away, and further deteriorate property and community values in Tsawwassen.

The government's confidence in selling the remaining homes is misguided.  Neighbourhoods without a critical mass of happy residents and functioning homes don't sustain themselves.  Just look at the wave of recent defaults south of the border.  A few abandoned homes can quickly devastate a whole neighbourhood, as remaining families jump ship - often at enormous cost.  The bitter taste that lingers from the power line debacle in Tsawwassen threatens to destabilize more of the surrounding community, if the root problem isn't addressed.  And that root problem is that people just don't want to live in a place where they and their loved ones could realistically die of cancer... Go figure.


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