History of Environmental Controversy Reads like a Thriller Dam(n) It All

Article excerpt

This locally written and published chronicle of the battle over the Rafferty and Alameda dams reads more like a thriller than a conventional history.

Dams of Contention offers the combustible mix of a venal government, back-door political dealing and perhaps the most atypical group of environmental activists ever assembled.

This is not a linear history. While the political struggle took place in Saskatchewan and Ottawa during the 1980s and 1990s, Free Press journalist and author Bill Redekop launches his story in the spring of 2011 as Minot, N.D., is swamped by the Souris River.

Rafferty and Alameda were built to protect Minot but they failed. To Redekop, Minot's trauma typifies the "half-baked" reasoning that underlay the mega-projects.

The controversy dates back to the early 1980s. Unable to achieve a local solution for Minot's flooding woes, North Dakota lawmakers looked to newly elected Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine for solutions.

Redekop is hard pressed to explain why Devine bit on Rafferty-Alameda but the political overtones are clear. The dams were situated within the southeastern Saskatchewan heartland of Devine and cabinet strongman Eric Berntson.

Neither man was tolerant of dissent. They "bulldozed" all opposition. Concerns regarding the loss of thousands of acres of upstream wetlands and a unique valley habitat were a mere sideshow on their path to progress.

A mega-project with unstudied downstream effects and involving international waters, migratory birds and federal lands would seem to demand a federal environmental assessment. But the independent review was not ordered.

Enter Elizabeth May. Formerly a senior aide to the federal minister of the environment, May resigned over Canada's failure to order an assessment. She set off a political firestorm with her allegations of a secret federal-provincial deal to bypass the independent review.

Against this explosive backdrop and standing in lonely legal opposition was a loose grouping of wildlife federations, landowners, environmentalists and those simply offended by "the arrogance of the developers and the dubious purposes of the dams."

In a series of legal challenges too lengthy to catalogue, these unlikely crusaders turned Canadian environmental law on its head. For the first time, Canadian courts recognized that federal environmental guidelines were legally binding. An environmental assessment was ordered. For a time, construction was stopped. …