Saskatchewan’s deputy premier, Eric Berntson, faced a sullen crowd of about 250 people in Estevan last week. Faced with a court decision that revoked the federal construction licence for the nearby Rafferty dam, part of a $1-billion power project in southeastern Saskatchewan, Berntson told his audience on April 11 that the province’s Conservative government had no option but to suspend contruction. In his ruling the day before, Federal Court Justice Jack (Bud) Cullen had sided with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, which had filed the application to halt construction. The federation’s argument: the federal environment department should stage its own environmental review of the Rafferty dam project on the Souris River and the smaller Alameda dam on nearby Moose Mountain Creek. But Berntson told listeners, some of them construction workers from the dam site, that the project would stand the test of the most painstaking studies. And he called the province’s own 1987 environment-impact review of the dams the most exhaustive “in the Western world.”
Still, environmentalists welcomed last week’s events, saying that the 70-km-long reservoir to be created by the dam would destroy local wetlands. And in Ottawa, Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard said that the federal government would examine the environmental studies done on the project. But Bouchard did not rule out the possibility of a federal appeal of the court ruling—a move that environmentalists say would call into question
Ottawa’s self-proclaimed commitment to environmental issues. Said Kenneth Brynaert, executive vice-president of the Canadian Wildlife Federation: “Up until now, Bouchard has said the right things. But the jury is still out.”
The Rafferty dam was to provide water to cool the generators in a 300-megawatt coalfired power plant to be built just south of the dam. Now, if Ottawa does institute a review, the project could be delayed by up to a year. And Premier Grant Devine, in whose riding the project is situated, blamed the opposition New Democrats for arousing opposition to the dam. Said Devine: “Politics is politics. The NDP wants this project stopped, pure and simple.” Still, some observers have argued that political considerations were behind the federal government’s decision to grant the construction licence without doing its own studies. Last June, Elizabeth May, chief policy adviser to former environment minister Tom McMillan—under whom the licence was issued— resigned from her position, charging that the environmental impact of the project had not been properly assessed. May also claimed that Ottawa issued the licence in exchange for the Devine government’s approval of a national grasslands park in the southwest part of the province. At the time, provincial and federal officials vehemently denied those assertions. Now, with the Federal Court ruling, those denials are again being questioned.
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