Saturday, March 21, 2015

Colliery Dams Park - A Flawed Process - Then & Now

This is a long read, and has been written from memory, so some details may be absent, but I believe the timeline and chronicle of events to be accurate to my recollection. This process has been ongoing for over two years, and today's conclusion is no more trustworthy than the assertion about seismic risk in the first place. The seismic peril and potential loss of 150 lives came with all  the authority that a PEng signature brings. That report has proven to have been completely faulty. We are now asked to believe a second report carrying P.Eng. authority. However, the common problem hindering public acceptance of these conclusions is the complete lack of public scrutiny of the process that has yielded these results. "Trust us we are Engineers or we are the professional City Staff " just doesn't cut it any more.
Jim Taylor

Public Scrutiny Has Been Absent From Colliery Dams Process

Back in the fall of 2012, city council were told (behind closed doors) of the perils and costs of dealing with the Colliery Dams. It was a no-brainer as the cost to remediate these ‘recreational dams’ was astronomical and councillors were warned of liability should the dams fail with resulting loss of life.

This entire process was void of any public scrutiny or oversight. It is unknown to this day, what information was supplied to council or what liability warnings were issued at that stage, nor how many councillors supported the dam removals.

At this point it is clear, that city staff were of the opinion the dams should be removed and the area ‘re-naturalized’, for whatever reason is unimportant. The point is that staff had made a decision and was prepared to support that opinion and gain council and public support the best way possible. Public safety is a hard motive to argue against and when combined with the massive $30 million cost of an alternate solution the first tactic used to gain public support for the removal option was put in play.

The first foray into the public arena was at the old fire hall in Harewood, where city officials set up the usual storyboards with all the ‘pretty pictures’ as Loyd Sherry would say, in an oft repeated ‘public open house’ format wherein the city explains to the citizens what they are doing under the guise of seeking input.

It turns out that the citizens in Harewood were not really buying into the whole story as presented and the realization that city hall was putting into motion a plan to destroy Colliery Dams Park was met with fierce opposition. A public meeting held in Barsby School saw several hundreds of angered residents present voicing their unbelief at what city hall was proposing. Out of this gathering was the genesis of the Colliery Dam Park Preservation Society who admittedly until this point paid little attention to what went on at city hall.

It is likely at this point city hall staff and council were caught off-guard as to the organized response to their proposal. People with various backgrounds in construction were drawn to the issue, some attracted by the unbelievable costs the city were claiming associated with the dams and others incredulous at the safety claims being promoted by the city.

The CDPPS group made a thoughtful, fact based presentation to city council, led by Engineer Mr. Lorne Gale who made it very clear to all, that there was much room for improvement in what the city was proposing. Rather than receiving this help and considering what he had to say, his credentials were belittled by a few councillors and a challenge to his facts was thrown out. Opposing councillors who challenged his figures, seemed unable to realize he was merely interpreting information contained in the engineers reports from the city, it was not new information of his own he was presenting.

It was at this point that city council and city hall did what they do quite often and that is ‘circle the wagons’ and resist any notion that our city hall staff could be in error. That is simply something city hall seems unable to ever consider.

It was at this point we were being told remediation could cost as much as $30 million, remember? What was being presented by people familiar with real construction costs was the fact that the problem could be dealt with for far less than what city hall was saying. At this point, there was no challenge to the real need to do anything as everyone seemed to be accepting the fact the old, crumbling dams could fail any minute and dealing with that as reality was where we started from.

With the revelation (brought from Mr. Gale) that the cost for a fix could be much less than $30 million, city council put the brakes on, ‘kind of’, which resulted in a whole new review of the entire matter.

At this point city staff engaged the engineering firm to provide more information to support the claim the dams presented grave peril to the public and could not be ignored for another 100 years. This is when the ‘facts’ about massive, catastrophic dam failure with the resulting loss of 150 lives was given the P.Eng. Stamp of approval by the professional’s city hall had hired to prove their opinion the dams had to be removed.

When it was obvious they were going to be faced with public opposition, the city proceeded with the incredible step of spending $35,000+ on a pre-emptive court injunction against John and Jane Doe (anyone) to keep them from interfering with the destruction of the dams.  They were unsuccessful but demonstrated the length to which they would go to remove the dams.

The actual timeline and details are a little fuzzy (I am doing this from memory) but at one point after the intervention of a facilitator and considerable more expense rather than proceeding with dam removal the idea they would remove the dams and then replace them was embraced by council. I believe this was Councillor Brennan’s idea of compromise. It would solve the immediate safety issue the dams proposed and satisfy the desire to retain the ponds in the park by rebuilding the dams the following year. Anyone paying attention could see this as likely just a ploy as the possibility of a permit being issued to rebuild was highly unlikely. In other words, once the dams were gone, they were gone. The impact the resulting siltation would have downstream was never adequately dealt with as several other environmental concerns which were raised.

City hall was at the point of awarding the contract to remove the dams when then-Chief Douglas White appeared before council and pressed for a cooling off and sober second look at the entire issue. That is how close city hall came to achieving their goal of removing the dams, come hell or high water. Pun intended.

After installing a large number of warning signs, warning siren and having uniformed officers go through the neighbourhood to make sure residents were sure of the possible danger, the Dam Safety Section agreed with what the city was now proposing.

The ‘technical committee’ was then struck led by city staff and attended by representatives of SFN and the CDPPS. They selected Golder Associates as consultants on the project. By design there was no city council member on the committee, nor was there any public or media scrutiny of the process. Members of the committee also seem to have been governed by in-camera rules as details of the process were not open to the public. This is a similar MO of far too many city hall decisions and is the common denominator between the seismically-caused hazard and the now flood-caused hazard we are presented with.

This committee undertook proper examination of the ‘facts’ of the dams Vis a Vis how they would respond to a seismic event. This determined the dams would not catastrophically fail in three minutes with the resulting loss of 150 lives as the previous engineers reports claimed. When facts, rather than assumption were applied to the condition of the dam, it was concluded the peril was simply a faulty opinion.

Here we are again, after this latest $1,000,000+ exercise by a city staff led process, with the opinion being expressed something has to be done to mitigate the peril an overtopping event would cause in a significant flood.

The problem with this latest conclusion is similar to the problem with the first conclusion in that it is made in the absence of properly investigated facts and based on much assumption.
While we are being told the engineers have concluded a flood would cause the dams to overtop due to inadequate spillway capacity, it has never happened in over 100 years. I understand there is only 25 years of reliable data upon which the conclusion was made regards this overtopping event.

While the engineers claim inadequate spillway capacity, they are not providing the complete methodology and data they used when arriving at that conclusion. There is credible challenge to this assertion and some feel the spillway capacity is grossly understated.
Based on the assumption the spillway could not handle the flow of water in this assumed rain event, it is further assumed that the water overtopping the dam would cause all of the rock and fill on the downstream side of the dam to be washed away. It is further assumed that with this fill removed; the concrete core dam wall would fail, releasing the water currently sitting in these two settling ponds in Colliery Dams Park.

There are a lot of conclusions based on a lot of assumptions which are not supported by any fact-based study as to whether this concrete core dam would actually fail even if all of the fill were to be washed away. This is just one more huge assumption coming with the authority of a P.Eng stamp affixed.

The Common Denominator and Flaw in the Process

As a resident of the city of Nanaimo, I have no reason to believe that the conclusion of this second city-led process is any more valid than the first. There was no council oversight, no media or public oversight and in the end has produced an opinion that in my opinion is still lacking proper investigation into how this dam will perform in an overtopping event. The conclusion it will fail, seems based on the same assumptions that led the previous engineers to assume a catastrophic, three minute failure with the loss of 150 lives.

The pubic who is being asked to support an $8 million (estimate) expenditure to remediate this assumed risk have no reason to believe this conclusion is anymore valid than the first P.Eng supported claim.

If this city council were to direct an open and transparent sober second look at this process, which must include study to support the hypothesis that this dam will actually fail, it might come as no surprise that this second conclusion is simply as faulty as the first, and that we may in fact have to do very little, if anything at all.

This cannot be another ‘behind closed doors’ exercise led by city staff who have been driving this process from the beginning.


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