Muskoka Lakes Association responds to latest Bala Falls proposal

The MLA sent the following letter Minister Jim Bradley regarding the latest proposal for the Bala Falls:

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October 15, 2012

 

The Honourable Jim Bradley
Minister of the Environment
77 Wellesley Street West
11th Floor, Ferguson Block
Toronto ON
M7A 2T5

By email: minister.moe@ontario.ca

The Muskoka Lakes Association is a century-old community group dedicated to promoting the responsible use, enjoyment and conservation of the unique Muskoka environment. As Canada’s oldest and largest cottage association, we have been major players in promoting healthy ecosystems and environmental stewardship, appropriate land use, nature conservatories, water quality and boating safety. We also played a significant role as a catalyst in the successful fight against acid rain.

For several years now we have watched the process unfold in which Swift River Energy Ltd. has applied to build a new hydroelectric facility to harness the waters of Lake Muskoka as they move into the Moon River watershed. We have followed the process closely. Our officers have met with the proponents of the project on several occasions and also with some of its opponents, each time with an open mind to try to understand the positions of all parties.

The MLA is generally in favour of renewable energy and locally produced energy. However, our Board of Directors has discussed the issue extensively and concluded that without further review, the current project is not appropriate for Muskoka. We believe there are too many concerns regarding the environmental impact of the proponent’s revised development proposal, and too many unanswered questions about the application. We believe that the risks – to water levels, to wildlife, to the scenic flow of the waterfall (an important economic consideration in Bala, and indeed throughout Muskoka), and to local boaters, swimmers, divers and property owners – are too significant to be ignored.

Our concerns centre on the revised “Addendum” submitted by SREL on May 30, 2012 (and revised on June 28, 2012). We believe this revised project proposal (which even the proponents admit is not the “Option 1” they had previously applied for, and they signify thereto by calling it “Alternative 1A”) constitutes a distinct new North Bala Small Hydro Project. We strongly believe this significant shift disqualifies the present information from being acceptable for approval. As the proponent states, “The modifications to the project as it was identified in the ES/RR include altering the location of the proposed facility and changing the size of the powerhouse to meet the constraints associated with the smaller parcel of land available for development.”

The differences include a repositioning of the tailrace that will now more directly affect swimmers, boaters and anglers in the main channel of the Moon River and across the river at Margaret Burgess Park. As regards the angling of the tailrace toward the north side of the river, Swift River previously reported that under its original “Option 1” proposal, “The tailrace of the powerhouse would be located in close proximity to the falls, which could cause safety issues and public concern.” One can only conclude that proposal 1A would create even graver concerns. The Addendum report, however, is silent on these effects. Given the sensitive nature of this location and the environmental and safety implications that cry out for exploration and public consultation, we ask the MOE to err on the side of caution.

We note also that Alternative 1A will require more rigorous and painstaking construction methods, including blasting below bedrock right beside the road and the North Dam. This obviously has huge implications for the unique ecosystem of Lake Muskoka and downstream on the Moon River, as well as terrestrial and aquatic wildlife habitat, heritage and public safety. We note that the proponent seems not to have solutions to many of these problems; its assurance is merely that  “mitigation … (e.g., ramping rates and/or monitoring) will be finalized through discussions with MNR and DFO at the detailed design stage prior to permitting and approvals” (Addendum, page 61). 

We are also concerned that the proponent does not yet have a design for its power plant; its visual rendering depicting Alternative 1A is purely a “concept” at this time. Given that the design, equipment and configuration was not yet known when the Addendum was released, it seems unreasonable to give a “pass” to potential adverse environmental impacts at this stage.

Accordingly, we ask the Minster of Energy to overturn the September 24 decision of the Director, Environmental Assessment and Approvals Branch, and require Swift River Energy Ltd. to prepare an Environmental Review or individual environmental assessment (EA) for its proposed new project, Alternative 1A. At the very least, we believe that project approval should be withheld until the construction details and environment information desired by the community are provided.

We believe increased disclosure and consultation would be in the best interests of all Muskokans. There is only one Bala Falls – a unique tourist attraction, recreational site and heritage area – and it is important that we get this development right.

The Ministry’s “Guide to Environmental Assessment Requirements for Electricity Projects” (January 2011), sets out the process and requirements for an Environmental Review. We believe that with the creation of Alternative 1A, which is significantly different from either of its previous proposals that were discussed as required at public meetings (Public Information Centres) in 2007 and 2008, SREL is no longer “onside” with the public review process. 

The proponent’s “Addendum” specifically notes potential ongoing negative impacts on aquatic habitat, fish mortality, tourism and recreation. It also refers to changes in construction methods, the environmental impacts of which have not been well documented. In addition, the “Comments on the Addendum for the North Bala Falls Small Hydro Project” published by the Save the Bala Falls organization (June 29, 2012), identified another problem that went unmentioned in the Addendum report; “The proponent’s flow simulations in the last few pages of the Appendices of the Addendum show that a gyre would be created. This whirlpool is a further threat to both the very popular in-water recreation at the base of the north falls, as well as marine navigation.”

These are all basic, fundamental issues for which more research and public consultation is required; yet this will not happen if the Director’s decision is upheld. Accordingly, we suggest that if the Minister does not overturn that decision, that he require that full public consultation be conducted regarding the revised project proposal. The last public meeting on this issue was held over four years ago, and the project has changed significantly since that time. 

In section B.4.1.1., the “Guide to Environmental Assessment Requirements for Electricity Projects” notes that, “The resolution of concerns directly between the proponent and the party raising the concern is always preferable to involving the Director of the EAAB in the matter.” It also sets out a process for interested parties to work with the proponents in order to resolve specific environmental concerns. We submit that none of this was possible in June 2012, since the proponent was revising its Addendum in June 2012 until the last possible day. As a result, we believe the public interest was not protected by the decision to deny the elevation request. 

The Muskoka Lakes Association supports private enterprise and alternative energy development. However, we believe that when it comes to a site of such environmental, scenic, historical, economic and recreational significance, the public interest must win out. A full and detailed review of the implications of this new hydroelectric station must take place – not just for the residents, tourists and cottagers of Bala and the Moon River, but for the reassurance and peace of mind of thousands of residents and cottagers upstream in the Muskoka Lakes. 

We ask your acknowledgement of this letter and to be kept informed of all future ministerial decisions and communications regarding this issue. 

Sincerely, 

Michael Langdon, President,
Muskoka Lakes Association
On behalf of the Board of Directors 

Copy to Swift River Energy Limited 

Copy to Ministry of Natural Resources,
Bracebridge Area Office
RR 2, 1350 High Falls Road
Bracebridge, ON P1L 1W9