Would you send your child to a school built on top of an underground electrical substation?

BC Hydro wants to build two electrical substations downtown – one under Lord Roberts Annex by Nelson Park and the other under Emery Barnes Park. It’s an innovative way for BC Hydro to save money but is it a good enough deal for downtown residents?

Lord Roberts Annex
BC Hydro wants to tear down Lord Roberts Annex (pictured here), build an underground electrical substation, and then rebuild the school. Who should decide if it's safe for students and a good deal for the community? Photo: Patti Bacchus

Hey downtown Vancouver families, BC Hydro has a deal for you.

It wants to build new Vancouver electrical substations under Emery Barnes Park and Lord Roberts Annex in Vancouver’s West End. It's a proposal they’re calling SEED. They call it a “A power smart innovation. Growing community with energy” and say it’s a way to save them from having to buy and take up expensive downtown real estate that could be used for other purposes.

They’re holding a consultation process through to February 28 that includes online feedback, open houses and roundtable discussions.

To move it forward, BC Hydro needs agreement from the Vancouver School Board (VSB) and the Vancouver Park Board. With no elected trustees at the VSB since Education Minister Mike Bernier fired us in October, it could be a slam dunk — or a big problem — at the school board.

It will be a slam dunk if the government-appointed trustee just does as her employer directs her to do — presumably to approve the proposal. After all, the biggest financial beneficiary of the SEED plan is government since BC Hydro is willing to pay for a school in Coal Harbour that the government’s otherwise responsible for funding.

It’s a win, win, win for government. Or as B.C. Hydro President and CEO Jessica McDonald's been calling it, a Triple Word Score.

And then there’s the big problem

The B.C. School Act (Section 58)  and VSB policy require trustees who are in a potential or real conflict of interest to “recuse” themselves from any vote or discussion on any matter in which they or their employer may have a pecuniary (financial) interest.

The VSB’s appointed trustee is a Ministry of Education employee, which, one could argue, puts her in a conflict of interest when it comes to voting on the BC Hydro substation proposal.

If I was a West End resident who didn’t want my young child going to a school built over an electrical substation without getting independent confirmation it was completely safe, I’d be demanding this decision be made by trustees I’d had an opportunity to elect — not by a government appointee.

Failing that, I’d consider an action under Section 62 of the B.C. School Act that says an elector may “apply to the court for a determination of the question of whether the trustee has contravened section 58” if the government-appointed trustee, Dianne Turner, approves the proposal or votes on any aspect of it.

Turner made it clear at the January 23 public VSB meeting that she has no intention of commissioning an independent assessment of the proposal to ensure its safety and nor does she plan to to consult with the community — she’s leaving that up to BC Hydro and its contractors, Kirk and Company and Stantec.

She says that she’ll send at least one staff member to observe each consultation event, but didn’t indicate she planned on going and hearing from residents directly.

SEED is an interesting proposal with some incentives for both boards and clearly it's a great deal for BC Hydro (which, as a crown corporation, is owned by all of us) and government, but is it a good deal for Vancouver residents, and in particular, downtown families?

Is is a good deal for downtown residents? 

That’s the question I’d be asking myself if I was still a school trustee and had a vote on the proposal. Actually, I’d ask myself and others a lot questions. That’s why it’s important a decision on a proposal like this, with its long-term implications, is made by elected representatives who are accountable to voters — not by someone who is accountable only to government.

Before I could vote on a proposal like SEED I’d need an independent analysis that proved it’s completely safe to build an electrical substation under a school. I’d make sure the VSB commissioned its own review, and I’d let BC Hydro know we’d send them the bill for it.

I’d make sure all technical information was freely available to parents and the community, and I’d invite their feedback to me and the other trustees — directly and not through BC Hydro or its contractors.

I’d make sure the community had all the information and time it needed to provide informed feedback, and I’d go listen to them in person, not send a staff member to do it on my behalf.

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