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Kenney Dam, British Columbia, Canada


In 1928, the provincial government of British Columbia sent engineers to study the lakes in Northern BC to produce an estimate as to how much hydro power could be obtained from the region. The government then invited Alcan (the Aluminum Company of Canada), now Rio Tinto, to develop the region and mine the ore. In 1948, in response to the invitation, Alcan sent experts to study the region. Two years later, Alcan and the provincial government signed an agreement that would last 44 years. This agreement essentially gave the land rights to Alcan for them to produce low cost hydroelectricity for the aluminum smelter they were going to build as well as purchase additional land at hugely reduced prices. Along with the smelter, the project would include a dam and a reservoir.          

Kenney Dam was built back in 1952 to generate power for the Kitimat aluminum smelter. It was built to reverse the direction of the Nechako river to flow westward and to create the Nechako reservoir which would be the source of the hydroelectricity for the aluminum smelter. The hydroelectricity would be produced at Kemano hydroelectric generating station which was another aspect of the Kitimat project. At the time of construction, Kenney Dam was the largest rock-filled, clay-core dame in the world with a height of 96.6 meters.Sixty-two years after the Kenney Dam flooded the traditional

territory of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, destroying hunting, fishing and

living areas and drying up parts of the Nechako River, the nation plans to

profit from the structure built without their consultation to power the Rio

Tinto Alcan smelter in Kitimat.

Kemano hydroelectric station is the power generating station for Kitimat aluminum smelter and to this day “remains the largest high pressure hydro generating facility in North America,” by generating power with the least amount of water possible (Rio Tinto website). Not only is the generating station one of the largest of its kind but so is the aluminum smelter. Kemano hydro generating power produces energy for the smelter which in turn contributes to the economy and communities of Northern British Columbia. However, the hydro generating station produces more energy than the smelter requires, with a capacity of 896 megawatts. The remaining power from the generating station is provided to BC Hydro who then distributes it to communities along the Highway 16 West.

Moving forward 62 years to 2014, another expansion project for Kenney Dam and Kemano generating station is being proposed. This expansion project would complete Tunnel two (T2) of which construction had never been completed during the initial construction of the project back in the 1950s. The expansion project would not only complete Tunnel two (T2) but it would also add a connection between Tunnel one (T1) and Tunnel two (T2).

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Kenney Dam, British Columbia, Canada
State or province:British Columbia
Location of conflict:Bulkley-Nechako
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Electricity

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The original project was approved and completed in the 1950s. There was an expansion project applied for in 2014. This project consisted of the completion of Tunnel two (T2) which would permit Rio Tinto to not only produce more hydroelectricity for their smelter but also permit them to temporarily close Tunnel one (T1) to administer repairs. According to Rio Tinto’s General Manager for BC Works, Gareth Manderson, Tunnel one (T1) has been assessed by five experts who estimate that the Tunnel has between a 20% and 50% chance of collapsing by 2021 and that more and more rocks are being caught in the rock trap. The rock trap is what prevents loose rocks from entering the turbines. However, without Tunnel two (T2), the only way to administer repairs would be to close the Tunnel which would cut off all power to the aluminum smelter. This project was estimated to cost approximately $473.6 million. The Tunnel when completed will be 16 km long and seeing as 8.4 km was built back in the 1950s, there is approximately 7.6 km remaining. Additionally, in favour for Rio Tinto, this expansion project does not require a surplus of water than what was allocated to them in their license. Furthermore, according to Manderson, the construction will be completed by Tutor Perini Corporation who will also refurbish the existing 8.4 km of the Tunnel. The work is estimated to start very soon (second quarter of 2018), if it has not already started and for the complete project to be completed by 2020. The company is currently waiting for a custom drill to arrive from Germany. It is expected to arrive in Fall 2018 and for the drilling to start in the winter. All of the permits and licenses have been approved and construction should begin shortly.

Level of Investment:473,600,000
Type of populationUnknown
Affected Population:162-332
Start of the conflict:29/12/1950
Company names or state enterprises:BC Hydro (BC Hydro) from Canada
Rio Tinto Alcan (Rio Tinto) from Canada
Relevant government actors:BC Hydro
BC New Democratic Party
BC Liberal Party
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:The Rivers Defence Coalition (the Coalition)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Prior to the Alcan development, non-native settlement in the region was sparse, consisting mainly of those pioneers who moved into the region in the early 1900s .... However, the Kitimat Valley had been inhabited by the people of the Haisla nation, a Kwakiutl Indian language-group, many years prior to Alcan's arrival.
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Air pollution, Noise pollution
Health ImpactsPotential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession, Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsCultural values impacted. Cemeteries flooded and bones unearthed.


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Development of alternatives:There has only been one alternative proposed over the years and that was the additional spillway proposed by the Cheslatta. Unfortunately the proposal did not go very far mostly due to Rio Tinto. Hopefully in the future, this proposal will re-emerge with more success.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:This is not a success story because although steps have been made towards reconciliation no real outcome has been reached. Despite the settlement in 1993 and the agreement in 2016, more work needs to be done. The Cheslatta Carrier Nation continue to bear the brunt of the original project of the 1950s which was built without their knowledge or consultation. Their lands have been taken away from them and there is no way they can get them back. Furthermore, the agreement signed in 2016 was never examined further and I believe this is due to the change in government.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict


Citation: Saik’uz First Nation and Stellat’en First Nation v. Rio Tinto Alcan Inc., 2015 BCCA 154

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Kemano water tunnel to be completed 20 years later

Province working towards settlement with Cheslatta Over Kenney Dam

Cheslatta Carrier Nation - Connectivity Profile

Cheslatta Carrier Nation Apply For Kenney Dam Water Licence

Partners on a healing journey

Rio Tinto to complete Kemano Second Tunnel Project

Alcan Incorporated

Kenney Dam

55 Years of History from The Workers’ Voices

Kitimat / Kemano

Impacts of the Kenney Dam



Duty to consult and accomodate

How the West Coast Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund has used the law to protect BC’s environment for 20 years

Community Profile: Cheslatta Carrier Nation

UPDATE: US-$473 million Kemano second tunnel project gets the go-ahead

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Partners on a healing journey

Kenney Dam Spillway

CKPG News - Cheslatta Agreement - Mark Villani

This Week in History Season 2 Episode 12 - Kenney Dam

A History of Kitimat-Kemano Project

Meta information

Contributor:Bishop's University
Last update22/07/2018