Waneta Dam project nears finish line

The $900 million-project began in January, 2011 and employed 400 workers daily at its peak during the course of construction.

After four years in the making, the Waneta Dam expansion project is just a few months from completion.

The $900 million-project began in January, 2011 and employed 400 workers daily at its peak during the course of construction.

Audrey Repin, director of stakeholder and external relations with the Columbia Power Corporation, says the last year has seen the completion of nearly all external aspects of construction.

Wednesday, the project took another step with synchronizing the turbine units with the transmission lines.

“It’s all part of moving forward towards our finishing date,” said Repin.

“We are heading into the final stretch and our goal is to have substantial completion by this spring,” she said, adding that a more concrete finishing date will be in place in a couple of months.

“Now, we are focusing on the inside. If you take a look at the site, you won’t be able to see very much.

“Before, there was a lot of hauling on the road and rock was being removed. Now, it is all about testing stop locks, assembly of various units and all the electrical and mechanical work inside the powerhouse.”

Now that the finishing touches are being put on the project, Repin says there are less workers on site, but planners are making sure to employ a high number of locals.

“A year ago, we were up to 400 workers on the project,” she said. “Now, we’ve got about 150 workers on site and of those, around 77 per cent are from the local community. We have maintained that level throughout the project.”

Mark Miller, business agent at the Local 2300 Carpenter’s Union in Castlegar, says at the height of construction, there were nearly 100 local carpenters employed daily.

“There were about 80 to 90 local carpenters on site a day,” he said. “For the Kootenays, that is huge. I have no stats for how many carpenters are in the Kootenays, but my best guess, it was about one quarter of all the carpenters in the region.”

With construction moving to the electrical and the mechanical bits, there are less carpenters on the dam expansion, but Miller says that is the nature of the industry.

“There are very few now,” he said. “It is definitely winding down, and that is the last power house in the area. It is too bad that is happening, but it is what it is. It is construction – it comes and it goes.”

When the project is finished in the coming months, the turbines will be producing 335 megawatts of power, enough to provide clean energy to 60,000 homes annually, but first, the power has to have a way to leave the turbines.

“Once you build a powerhouse, you have to be able to send the power to (B.C. Hydro’s Selkirk sub station),” said Repin. “The 10-kilometre transmission line is complete and it has been energized without incident. Everything is going along as scheduled.”

Along with the transmission line, over the past year, the turbines were installed, the tunnel transitions, channelling water to and from the dam, were finished and the plugs blocking water from the Pend D’Oreille were removed, allowing the water to flow into the powerhouse.

Aside from the construction aspects, Repin says one thing Columbia Power didn’t anticipate with the project was a boost to the Greater Trail Area economy to the tune of $210 million.

“There are a lot of workers who live in town, go buy a coffee, go buy a new couch, or a truck or a car, book a hotel, or go out for dinner,” she said. “There is a lot more activity in town as a result of this project. We didn’t expect that. Equal to that ($210 million) and more, is the amount of wages paid to the workers.”

One local business has felt the influx of money into the community – the Trail Motel in Glenmerry. Manager Sue McIntosh says the motel has been packed with workers from the Waneta Dam Expansion.

“It has been a great improvement (for business),” she said. “The rooms have been full of people for the last couple of years. We are the only place in the area with full kitchens and other amenities.”

Workers can stay at the hotel for years, with one crane operator renting a room for nearly three years. There is one Waneta Dam worker who has been booked into a room for two years and is still there.

When the construction project is over in a few months, McIntosh hopes rooms will stay booked at the motel.

“Of course, we are hoping that business continues,” she said. “We get Teck people staying with us too.”

When the powerhouse is fully up and running, there will be less than 10 people on site, and sometimes only one at a time.

“Following project completion, a small small team will be required for operations,” said Repin. “Other than regular planned maintenance where a larger team is required, an operational team would typically consist of less than 10 people who may also be providing operational expertise to other operating facilities in the area.”