Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Colliery Dams Saga - A Look Back - First 30 Days

Nanaimo Info Blog October 30/2012
Note the 'Big One' was the bogeyman we needed to deal with!
Earthquake Could Cause Dam To Fail
Should We Mitigate Against All Possible Calamity?
Can We Mitigate Against All Possible Calamity?

I suspect the incident in Oliver about two summers ago where the failure of a private dam caused a mudslide and the loss of six homes resulted in another over reaction from the mandarins that haunt the halls in Victoria and around the province.

This stepped up vigilance surrounding the safety of dams in the province has likely resulted in the verdict by a branch of government that the dams in Colliery Park need to be removed as they could, possibly, maybe fail in the event of a significant earthquake. Not unlike the verdict we need to spend $72 million to treat water that is currently deemed by the city to be equal to commercially filtered bottled water. Both these dams, and our drinking water have 100+ years of history which don't seem to matter when those tasked with public safety think they can guard against all possible calamity. After all, if they weren't making all these important decisions, what would they be doing? Flipping burgers?

Just how large does this earthquake have to be to cause these dams to fail? What kind of damage would that level of quake cause to the other dams in the water supply system. The water mains and reservoirs etc. etc. are likely to be a complete disaster in the event of the BIG ONE everyone seems so afraid of. To say nothing of all the buildings in Nanaimo that would be reduced to rubble if a quake of that magnitude should occur.


Remember a little while ago, city staff hauled out the 'seismic event' chestnut and pointed to the extreme hazardous condition of the 75 year old city annex. Of course when public safety is the issue how can we quibble about the cost?

Well, what about ALL the other civic buildings that will never survive this much feared earthquake, or the schools where our most precious citizens spend their days? There is no real consistency and the reason of course is that it is virtually impossible to retrofit all civic buildings to the current seismic code, which incidentally means very little in the event of the 9 or 10 BIG ONE we are always told about coming sooner or later.

Is this a necessary decision that really has to be made, or just another example of bureaucracies having to justify their existence by appearing to do something?

Nanaimo Info Blog November 9/2012

A steady stream of Harewood residents filed into the Harewood Activity Centre on 4th Street to see what the city has planned for the demolition of the two dams and the restoration of the Chase River Creek bed.

When I arrived at 4:00 pm there were no parking spots in the lot and it remained that way for the two hours I was in attendance. The display consisted mainly of the same graphics which appear on the city website except they are blown up into poster size for display purposes.

Many city staff were present to answer questions but the general din of the room made it near impossible to hear how concerns and questions were being dealt with.

Of the people I spoke with I would say they were split about 50/50 when it comes to being convinced this is the right move for their area with some questioning the need to remove the dams altogether. There was more than one person speculating that the real reason for emptying the dams was to enable future development of the land through that area.

A general distrust for what they were being told is a common theme. Even those who felt in the interest of public safety removing the dams was the thing to do, many were still not convinced the danger was as real as presented by staff.

Several people who claim to know the area feel that once the dams are gone there is going to be a very ugly, deep ravine exposed which will in no way resemble the park they have all come to enjoy using over the years. There is nothing to compare with this park in all of Harewood and the loss of it is troubling to many who find it is a free, safe place for their kids to go and just have a good time.

Nanaimo Info Blog Nov. 19/ 2012
John Barsby School
Tuesday, Nov. 20th 7:00 PM

Nanaimo residents are not convinced the city has given enough consideration to the option of upgrading these dams, which apparently was an option presented in the 2010 seismic report done on these dams.

It is pointed out that the social and environmental aspects make the exploration of upgrading the dams something that needs considering. The dam is seen as an important part of the parks system for which Nanaimo is justifiably proud.

If you think this issue demands more consideration than a decision made behind closed doors and recommended by a few city staff, then this is the perfect opportunity to participate in this open and transparent democracy your city council is always talking about.

Comment: It will be interesting to see how the local media covers this issue as the local daily has already come out four square behind removing the dams, although I doubt they have anything more than city staff's opinion on which they base their opinion. I doubt if they have done any real investigating to see what the options really are.  It's not called the Daily Snooze for nothing.

Nanaimo Info Blog Nov. 20/ 2012
Over 500 Attend Public Meeting
To Save Colliery Dam

One thing is certain and that is if city staff and city council think that the Colliery Dams have come to the end of their useful life, they have not read the public very well and may be victims of just listening to their own opinions.

It was a packed out meeting in the gymnasium at John Barsby School on Tuesday night where organizer Jeff Solomon with the aid of many organizers were able to send a message loud and clear to city hall. The message? Colliery Dam and the lakes they create are worth saving and no one is convinced the city gave any other options enough serious consideration.

For a grass roots organization flying by the seat of their pants with little over two weeks to organize they have done a remarkable job of getting the area sitting up and paying attention to what I suspect city hall figured would be just another slam dunk.

City hall has been taught for the most part they can get away with just about anything with little to no public push back. A $72 million water plant and $16 million annex comes quickly to mind. These two projects for the most part barely caused a ripple on the pond but the loss of Colliery Dam and the lakes they create were not going to go unnoticed, even if the local press started playing the official city tune from the get-go.

A retired engineer who is a part of this grass roots group was able to explain what the studies the city commissioned say and don't say about the condition of the dams and the alternatives to improve the level of safety. Needless to say they disagree with the conclusions of city staff who ultimately are the ones who have swayed council in their decision.

If city council can't figure out that in-camera meetings and not engaging the public is the best way to get things done they really haven't learned a thing since the low barrier housing fiasco. You can't keep making decisions in secret and then just think you can ramrod it through without ruffling a few feathers.

You can expect to hear much more from this group as they get themselves organized and focused in their fight with city hall to save the Colliery Dams. Tactics to apply political pressure were discussed as well as the possibility of a full on occupation similar to the Friends fo the Clayquot action were not ruled out.

City councilors and city staff will always tell you how keen they are for participatory democracy. We'll see!

Nanaimo Info Blog Nov. 25/ 2012
 Delegation Appeals To City Council

There are three delegates listed on the Monday Committee of the Whole meeting who will be presenting to council regards the Colliery Lakes Dam removal decision.

Unfortunately these delegates will not necessarily gain the public attention they deserve due to the fact they are not allowed to make their presentations before a regular city council meeting. A regular city council meeting starts at 7:00pm whereas a COW meeting starts at 4:30pm which seriously limits the number of people who can attend. The lack of being broadcast, and the usual lack of local media coverage (this blog excluded) means most issues presented at a COW meeting get about as little attention as possible. A cynic would say that is by design by staff and council so they may reduce the publicity some issues might otherwise gain.

If the three presenters on behalf of the save the Colliery Lakes group are as articulate as they were with their arguments at the meeting held at Barsby last week it should make for an interesting alternative to the view already presented by city staff.

From the information I have gained from city staff it is fair to say there never has been an accurate cost estimate of what upgrading the dams might be, as the decision to remove the dams was considered the only viable option given the seismic hazard assessment report followed by the inundation report.

To support their decision the city refers to the finding that there 'could be' a 15% - 40% chance the dams would fail in the next 50 years due to a seismic event. I'm not sure how the rest of Nanaimo will fair if the same criteria is applied to a hazard assessment of other structures in Nanaimo.

The engineer speaking on behalf of those opposed to the decision to remove the lakes, claims a 1.6% chance in 50 years based on the same studies.

It will be interesting to see how convincing this delegation is and how receptive city council may be to the differing viewpoint of this delegation. I suspect the majority will dig in their heels and defend their decision.

Regardless the outcome, it is always refreshing to see members of the community actually participate in the decisions being made by a handful of elected and non-elected officials.

Nanaimo Info Blog Nov. 26/ 2012

Many Questions Need Answering About Process

The recent controversy over the city staff-led decision to destroy Colliery Parks Lakes has brought to light some serious questions about the whole process and how city hall staff handled this issue.


The whole timeline of this matter needs some consideration and the way in which city manager, Mr. Al Kenning chose to deal with this matter. The Dam Safety review conducted in 2003 recommended a seismic hazard assessment based on concerns about the dam. The city did not authorize this work until Feb. 2009 and that assessment was not issued for use until April 2010. There were serious concerns raised about these dams at this time. However, it was not until Sept. 2012 that the flood inundation study was released. Given the seriousness city staff now attaches to these dams, why have they seemingly dragged their feet so long on this file?

It was also during this timeline that city staff were busy convincing city council of the pressing need to provide them with a shiny new office.

Costs To Destroy Dams Not A Firm Price:

At the COW meeting of Nov. 26, 2012 it was revealed by Mr. Sims, the head of the water department that the publicized price of $7 million to remove the dams is no better than an educated guesstimate, as is the price of $20 - $30 million to upgrade these dams. If nothing else, you really have to question just how seriously this matter has been considered by Mr. Kenning, if getting nothing better than guesstimates when making buying decisions you have to wonder about those best practices we hear about from time to time.

You may recall when it came to awarding the $12 million contract to build the new Annex, which decision was also based on 'seismic assessment', there never was a tendering process used. Rather it seems that once again guesstimates were the order of the day, for example when deciding against buying an existing building and upgrading it, it was said to cost between $1 million and $8 million to upgrade. That's a pretty wide guesstimate, but was enough for city staff to abandon buying an existing building in favour of spending $16 million on a shiny new office.

Just Leading To A Foregone Conclusion?

You have to wonder if there ever was any genuine desire on the part of Mr. Kenning to retain the Colliery Park Lakes or if their removal was the plan from the beginning. Of course there has to be the appearance of doing the city's business in a proper manner following best practices. But you would be forgiven for concluding Mr. Kenning believed destroying the dams was the best option and set about to convince city council that was what had to be done and based his persuasion on questionable guesstimates at best.

The Process:

The process was clearly handled in such a manner as to completely eliminate any possible feedback from the public or any time given for any input from the public with what is proving to be possibly viable, and cost saving alternatives. Some councilors would have you believe they were given very little time to agree with staff's decision to destroy the lakes. There is no doubt the public was denied any opportunity to put forward their concerns or ideas about a safe, agreeable resolution.

On the surface it appears that staff, once again are simply operating in a high-handed manner designed to push this decision through without due consideration from council or the public.

Openness, Transparency, Participatory Democracy, Accountability, Communicate:

Do these principles actually describe goals this city staff and city council really believe in, or are they just buzz words of the day designed for that famous 15 second sound bite we all think passes for news these days?

Based on the current Colliery Park Lakes fiasco, I think it appears these are just the buzz words of the day rather than being truly reflective of anything meaningful coming from city hall.

Nanaimo Info Blog Nov. 26/ 2012
 Councillor Pattje's Motion Opens Door To Discussion

After hearing credible representation from the society to save Colliery Parks Lake, Councillor Pattje's motion to have city staff meet with society members to discuss options to removing the dams was passed by the majority of council. Councilor Bestwick was the only dissenting vote.

The wide range of price tags associated with upgrading the dams simply can not be ignored. For example retired, life long resident Mr. Heathcote who has worked in the construction business and on such projects as the Elsie Lake Dam believes the figures quoted by city staff of $20 - $30 million are grossly over estimated. The probability of a dam failure of 1.6% in 50 years is in sharp contrast to the figure of 40% used by staff to justify their recommendation to remove the dams.

One after another delegates made compelling cases to city council which could only result in revisiting this decision if there is to be any confidence the city has made the right choice. Pointing out the complete lack of public input on the matter, to the fact it seems the decision to remove the dams was made by one or two city staff, to unreliable estimates to upgrade the dams, the delegates raised more than enough unanswered questions which means listening to this group's input is the only viable option.

The motion which was successful requires staff to meet with the friends of Colliery Park Lakes and report back to council with other options which should be considered.


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