A History of Kitimat-Kemano Project

. The Delta King
Above: The "Delta King", used as a bunkhouse during construction days. (Alcan BC Operations)

In the 1940s, the British Columbia government wanted to develop the considerable resources of the sparsely populated northwest and north central areas of the province and to establish new population centres, without risking taxpayers' funds. In the 1920s, the provincial Water Rights Branch had carried out a far-reaching survey of the hydroelectric generating potential of the province. It was this survey that identified the possibilities offered by what is known today as the Nechako Watershed, a vast river and lake system draining 14,000 square kilometres of north central B.C., 600 kilometres north of Vancouver.

Alcan was invited by the B.C. government to investigate the establishment of an aluminum industry in the northwest. Alcan liked what it saw and began the huge Kitimat-Kemano project.

In its day, it was the largest privately-funded construction project ever undertaken in Canada. It cost $500 million in 1950 dollars - or more than $3.3 billion in today's currency.

The project included construction of several components including the Kenney Dam in the Nechako River Canyon, which reversed the river's eastward flow and created the Nechako Reservoir, plus:

• A mechanism for controlling reservoir water levels, commonly referred to as a spillway, at Skins Lake.
• A 16-kilometre tunnel, as wide as a two-lane highway, drilled and blasted through the coastal mountains to carry water to the twin penstocks of the Kemano powerhouse. Through these penstocks, the water plunges 800 metres nearly 16 times the height of Niagara Falls - to drive the generator turbines.
• A cathedral-shaped powerhouse, also drilled and blasted 427 metres inside the granite base of Mount DuBose, to house eight 112-megawatt generators.
• An 82-kilometre power transmission line from Kemano to Kitimat across some of the most rugged mountain territory in B.C., through the Kildala Pass, 1,500 metres above sea-level.
• Construction of a smelter and wharf at tidewater in the previously undeveloped Kitimat Valley.
• Creation of two townsites from wilderness territory in Kitimat and Kemano.

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 in the hope that a railroad terminus would be established at tidewater. 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.

Today Kitimat is also home to more recent industrial development: Eurocan's pulp and paper mill and Methanex Corporation's methanol plant and an ammonia plant operated by Methanex for Pacific Ammonia Inc., both of which have deep sea shipping terminals on the busy waterfront.

Reprinted courtesy of Alcan B.C. Operations