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Town rebuilds power plant

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FORT MCPHERSON, Northwest Territories - Construction of a new power plant
continues for a town in the Northwest Territories that hopes it won't ever
have to re-build.

Under the darkness of an Arctic winter, a Native hamlet found itself
without heat and power. On the night of Jan. 19, with temperatures of -40,
the 40-year-old power plant in Fort McPherson burst into flames.

What had the makings of a disaster for the community of 900 instead, at
worst, turned out to be a minor inconvenience. Quick action by the
Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC) and the collective behavior
by the villagers prevented the emergency from becoming widespread.

As electrical workers and firefighters were flown from up to 1,500 air
miles away across the Northwest Territories, within a scant eight hours the
blaze was under control and an emergency generator was installed. In
addition to only minimal property damage, there were no injuries as a
result of houses being without heat.

Director for the Delta/Sahtu region of NTPC, Herbert Blake, credits
everyone in the town for working together.

"This is the amazing part is that we ran the whole community of McPherson
on 300 kW in the dead of winter," Blake said, who's the first Aboriginal
director for NTPC in the region. "This resulted from the cooperation of the
entire community who were conservative in their use of electrical
requirements for their homes."

Blake calculates during the winter an average daily household use is 3 kW,
a capacity the previous plant, built in 1965, was able to provide to 300
units. With just one smaller emergency generator to power Fort McPherson
during the next few days after the fire, Blake noted the drop in energy
consumption fell to one-third.

Communication certainly played a key role. Daily announcements on the local
radio station urged listeners to reduce their need for electricity and the
town consented. Just days into his job as senior administrative officer,
Troy Jenkins issued a state of emergency.

"Every morning the power corporation let us know [of the situation] and
there was a dramatic drop and that was a remarkable effort that everyone
reduced power," said Jenkins.

He stated the total property damage was about $70,000 ($52,000 U.S.),
mostly from pipes freezing in some businesses. In light of the situation,
Jenkins added, this amount was minimal.

What accounted for the town's composure was its preparation. Fort
McPherson's citizens comprise about 80 percent from the Gw'ichin First
Nation, people who continue to live off the land. Blake pointed out many
homes already had the provisions of wood stoves and gas lamps so the
modern-day convenience of electricity wasn't the be-all and end-all.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Meanwhile the new power
plant containing two 540 kW generators and a third of 700 kW is anticipated
to be completed by the middle of December, slightly behind schedule but
much faster than the usual three years required when designing and
constructing such a facility.

Insurance will cover the $6 million ($4.5 million U.S.) project but
McPherson's mayor is critical of the post-disaster planning. In his second
term running the hamlet, Philip Blake (cousin to Herbert), is neither
pleased with how the budget has been calculated nor the long-term vision of
the new plant.

In addition to the $6 million, there is a 12.5 percent contingency that's
the town's responsibility. Mayor Blake believes this $750,000 will be spent
and that will result in higher power bills. This money, he opined, could
have been better spent with some foresight towards the aging building.

"For another $1 million we could have moved the goddamn thing out of town,"
Blake said, referring to an estimated $2 million for refitting the
building.

He also chided the hasty decision of fueling the new plant with diesel
instead of other options. Blake said no alternatives, such as hydro or
wind, were even considered in the haste to build another plant; time he
suggests wasn't urgent.

"We've had no troubles using the generators now. There's no reason we
couldn't use them for another winter if they needed more time," the mayor
said.

On the day in late July when the construction crew was pouring the cement
foundation into the power plant, Fort McPherson just lifted its third state
of emergency of the year, this disaster regarding nearby forest fires
caused by a dry summer. (In May, the town suffered flooding from the spring
melt in the adjacent Peel River.)

Based on what has been learned from this hamlet, Herbert Blake has this
advice for any isolated community.

"We're at the mercy of nature and from time to time it raises its ugly
head. The old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared."