Power outages prompt state of emergency in Kyuquot

Eric Plummer, March 17, 2020

An order has been given by the BC Utilities Commission after the First Nation fears neglect from a private power utility. (Eric Plummer photo)

Kyuquot, BC — 

More than a week of continued power outages has led to a localised state of emergency in Kyuquot, prompting attention from the BC Utilities Commission and the RCMP.

The notice was issued on Sunday morning, March 15 by the Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nations for its Houpsitas village on northwestern Vancouver Island, a community of under 200 residents only accessible by boat or float plane. With much of Houpsitas still relying on generators for electricity, this state of emergency will remain in place until a reliable source of power is available.

“Food is spoiling, and due to current cold weather, there are growing health concerns,” reads a press release from the First Nation. “There is also increased potential for physical harm coming to those that remain without power due to attempts by them to provide heat for themselves.”

Electricity for the community is provided by Kyuquot Power Limited, an electrical utility owned by Synex International. Through electricity purchase agreements with BC Hydro, Synex owns and runs several small hydroelectric plants on Vancouver Island, including operations on Mears and Cypress creeks near Gold River. Synex also has an 80 per cent stake in Barr Creek Hydro, with the remainder owned by the Ehattesaht First Nation.

Since March 6 power has been out for most of the time in Kyuquot. Although weather sometimes causes temporary outages for the coastal community, that doesn’t appear to the be issue in this case, said Cynthia Blackstone, chief administrative officer for the Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nations.

“Whenever there was a storm in Kyuquot - and we have many - we would expect potentially an outage,” she said. “But it has been several times since March 6 that we’ve had outages and the weather has been great.”

While some buildings like the First Nation’s band office can use diesel generators for electricity, fuel is running low.

“Our fuel gets barged in from Gold River. They don’t have a scheduled trip into Kyuquot anytime soon,” said Blackstone, adding that the school in Houpsitas does not have a generator. “They were shut down most of last week. I think they were open for half the day on Monday (March 9).”

The electricity line to Kyuquot begins at Oclucje, running overland to Fair Harbour, where it becomes a submarine cable to Chamiss Bay before extending over land again to Kyuquot. Blackstone believes that the problem is due to a fuse too small to handle the needs of the remote community. Efforts to get Kyuquot Power to fix the problem have so far been unsuccessful.

“We’ve been trying to work with them to get them to increase the fuse,” said Blackstone. “The fuse size that they have for the line coming into the community is just not sufficient for the load, but they keep re-energizing it and it keeps going out.”

As the First Nation fears for the safety of its members, complaints were sent to the RCMP, BC Utilities Commission, WorkSafeBC and Technical Safety BC. Blackstone said that the RCMP are investigating, While the utilities commission has issued an order to Synex.

According to the order, which was given on March 15, a complaint was filed by a power customer on Feb. 13 concerning the safety of Kyuquot Power (KPL) and a “history of unreliable service.”

“KPL responded, indicating that all but one deficient item had been corrected,” states the BCUT order, noting that this outstanding issue would be corrected by KPL within 30 days.

Synex did not respond to requests from the Ha-Shilth-Sa to as to why this problem has persisted, but now a Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' powerline engineer is working with the company to amend the situation, according to the First Nation.

“He was running some of the numbers just now and he doesn’t think that this is going to hold because that fuse is still too small,” said Blackstone of the powerline engineer. “All along we’ve suspected that it’s been the wrong sized fuse and that there’s been some negligence around ensuring that there’s a proper fuse size to supply power to the community, which is why we called the RCMP in.” 

The CAO noted that improvements have been made to the power line, but this should not be the cause of the outages.

“We have been working on improving our lines because we had one company that was managing our lines that did a very poor job and it was quite dangerous,” she said. “Some employees at Kyuquot Power were blaming us for all of the outages, saying that the repairs we did increased the load that caused the outages. The numbers haven’t changed.”

“We just made it safer,” continued Blackstone. “We’re concerned people are covering their rear ends by not saying what actually happened.”

The involvement of the utilities commission now requires Kyuquot Power and its owning company to provide daily updates on the status of the electrical system, and what work is being done over the second half of March. Record drawings detailing the system, with outage logs over the last two months, are also required by the BCUT order, as are “identified areas of risk to maintaining the KPL system in a stable, operational state for the next three months.”