Guests at a tour of the John Hart Generating Station Replacement Project walk up from a large access tunnel bored into the hill below the current penstock pipes Monday. The penstocks will be removed and the land reforested when the underground project is completed in 2018.

Taking a look at Hydro’s big dig

Aging John Hart dam and power station undergo a major seismic upgrade and replacement

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The ongoing John Hart Generating Station Replacement Project is something Campbell River can really dig, Mayor Andy Adams said during a tour of the construction site Monday.

At the moment, digging comprises most of the work going on as the aging John Hart dam and power station undergo a major seismic upgrade and replacement.

“It’s like a mining operation for the first year and a half, to remove all the rock,” said Stephen Watson of BC Hydro. “Once that’s complete, they get into the building phase, starting to construct the generating station.”

Monday’s tour updated regional civic leaders and media on the progress of the four-year project, which kicked off last summer with a similar tour. It was led by managers from BC Hydro, joint venture construction partners InPower BC, Aecon and SNC Lavalin Constructors Pacific, Inc., and included Adams and Comox Valley MLA Don McRae. The visitors were taken to the entrance of one of two access portals being dug deep into bedrock in the hill below John Hart dam. The tunnels, one large enough to accommodate semi trucks and large equipment, will eventually intersect with the main generating station tunnel.

“These are just little access tunnels,” Aecon’s Scott Marshall said. “But they’re big.”

When completed and commissioned in the fall of 2018, the new site will feature more than two kilometres of underground tunnels as the surface penstocks and surge towers are removed from the site and the hillside reforested.

“To see it go to this design level, underground with the tunneling option, will also be really important going forward, as it creates a more natural park space,” said Adams. “It will just be a great asset for Campbell River.”

In addition to major seismic upgrades — “The penstocks and generating station wouldn’t survive a low to moderate earthquake,” said Watson — the new facility will boast an underground water bypass. It will eliminate the periodic release of water through Elk Falls currently needed when the current turbines require maintenance or repair.

The new generating station will add 9.5 per cent more generating capacity with the same flow rates currently in place. The project employs roughly 185 people in Campbell River, on-site or in support roles, and utilizes 50 local contractors for goods and/or services.

“The whole John Hart generating project and what will be coming up with the seismic upgrade to the dam, combined with the hospital project, is a once-in-a hundred-year injection of capital projects into a community,” said Adams. “We’ve seen a lot of people coming into Campbell River for good jobs. It’s critically important to Campbell River.”