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CEC OKs licence for Keeyask

Conditions include measures to protect caribou, other wildlife

Keeyask Dam Hydro-Electric Generating station.

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Keeyask Dam Hydro-Electric Generating station.

Manitoba Hydro and its First Nations partners have cleared an important hurdle in the construction of the proposed $6.5-billion Keeyask generating station on the Nelson River.

The Manitoba Clean Environment Commission (CEC), in a report to be released today, says it will recommend an environmental licence be issued for the 695-megawatt dam.

However, it attached several conditions to the licence, including increased efforts to monitor and protect caribou, lake sturgeon and other wildlife.

Manitoba Hydro wants to start construction on the dam this summer to take advantage of lucrative export power sales to the U.S. Midwest.

If approved, the first of seven turbines would start producing electricity in 2019.

The Public Utilities Board is holding hearings over whether the Keeyask hydro dam project makes economic sense. The PUB's report is due June 20.

The 192-page CEC report is being released as critics -- including Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives -- argue the NDP government is rushing into a decision to build the Keeyask and Conawapa (slated for service in 2025) dams without doing enough homework.

The CEC submitted its report to the province on April 17, following months of hearings. A copy of the report was obtained by the Free Press Tuesday.

Overall, the CEC said, the environmental assessment provided by Manitoba Hydro for Keeyask was "much improved" over the work it did for its Bipole III transmission line.

Still, the commission did not agree with all of Hydro's conclusions. For instance, it said Hydro is "optimistic" about its ability to mitigate habitat losses for lake sturgeon. The CEC said Hydro's proposal for restocking the fish has never been done in a northern river environment and is "at best, experimental."

It recommended Keeyask Hydropower Limited Partnership (the project's ownership group, consisting of Hydro and four First Nations) stock lake sturgeon "for at least 50 years" to allow time for a self-sustaining population to be re-established.

The CEC also recommended the partners do more to track caribou migration in the region and to minimize the disturbance of their habitat, including the "retirement," where possible, of roads and trails used during the project's construction phase.

It also recommended the partners widen the scope of their proposed mercury monitoring and that they perform pre-flood monitoring of fish mercury in Gull Lake and Stephens Lake before the flooding of the reservoir.

The CEC also wants the group to undertake a third-party environmental audit, upon completion of construction, to assess whether its commitments were met and to assess the accuracy of its environmental assumptions.

The study would be directed by the provincial Conservation and Water Stewardship Department.

The CEC concluded the project has the potential to be an economic benefit to the four First Nations, although the magnitude of that benefit is unclear.

Members of the First Nations are expected to earn anywhere from $21 million to $62 million working on the project. Employment income levels will depend largely on the success of recruitment, training and retention efforts, the CEC said. For aboriginal workers from all of northern Manitoba, construction employment income from the project is estimated at $49 million to $180 million.

Meanwhile, the partnership contracted the Pembina Institute to assess the impact of the project on climate change. It found the dam will produce the equivalent of 979,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, nearly half of which will occur during construction (including the manufacture and transportation of building materials).

The study found a comparable-sized natural gas plant would produce as much greenhouse gas in 177 days as the Keeyask generating station would in 100 years.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

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