The Peace Canyon dam in B.C. Jayce Hawkins The Narwhal

Audit found 87 high-risk B.C. dams with ‘deficiencies,’ but doesn’t say where

B.C.’s auditor general is urging people not to be alarmed after releasing a 35-page report that found provincial officials weren’t doing enough to prevent dam failures that could lead to deaths and destruction

British Columbia had 87 high-risk dams with “significant deficiencies” in 2020, according to an audit released on Tuesday that warned the provincial government was not doing enough to ensure dams were safe. 

Among the 87 identified with deficiencies, the audit said that one required “immediate attention” by the dam owner, 24 needed “considerable work” despite having an owner that was not actively working to correct deficiencies, and 62 had owners that were actively working to correct deficiencies with “considerable work” needed to be compliant. The audit also found that these dams, on average, had been at a high risk level for 7.5 years. 

But the location of the high-risk dams remains a mystery.

Neither the Office of the Auditor General of B.C. nor the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development would say what areas were at risk. The provincial ministry is responsible for the safety of 1,900 dams that provide electricity, irrigation and flood control, including BC Hydro dams and about 20 dams constructed for oil and gas activities such as hydraulic fracking. (Not all oil and gas industry dams fall under the ministry’s jurisdiction.) 

The 35-page report by Auditor General Michael Pickup said the failure of 1,000 dams overseen by the ministry “can kill people and damage the environment and property.” “For the remaining 900 dams, the impact of failure is lower, only damaging the owner’s property.”

“We don’t want people to be alarmed and we weren’t out there looking at the particular safety of unique dams or anything like that,” Pickup said. “But this is a large government program … that is not working, frankly, as it is intended to by government — and I think people need to have a discussion around this with elected officials.”

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Pickup said the report doesn’t identify the 87 dams with serious deficiencies because it covers the period from January 2019 to December 2020 and he wasn’t certain whether they were still at risk. “Presumably a number of things would likely have changed since the audit period,” he told reporters during a news conference.  

“So my suggestion would be if you’re looking for an up-to-date accounting … of how that 87 has changed … ask government themselves where this now stands.” 

Although Pickup said the public should not be alarmed, his report noted that dam failures could have serious consequences.

It classified the consequence of failure for 43 dams as “extreme,” while the consequences of failure for 84 dams was classified as “very high.” Another 234 dams had a “high” failure consequence classification, while 595 were considered to have “significant” consequences in the event of failure. 

“Failures can be caused by a single catastrophic event, such as an earthquake, or, more often, by a series of cumulative causes or events,” the report noted.

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau alarmed by report

BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau offered a blunt assessment of Pickup’s report, calling it “alarming” and urging the BC NDP government to address public safety concerns.

“And the way that they can do that is to be transparent,” Furstenau told The Narwhal. “To be proactively providing information about the dams that are not meeting these standards and communicating clearly about what steps they’re going to take to properly do their job as a regulator and properly protect the public.”

The Narwhal asked the ministry for a list of the 87 dams, along with the locations, owners and purpose, but it declined to provide these details, instead sending an emailed response that said none of the 1,900 dams “pose an immediate risk nor are at an imminent threat of failure.”

“Over time, if compliance and enforcement are not effective at promoting dam owners to adhere to safety standards, these dams may become liabilities and the province will have to pay for corrective actions to occur to keep the public safe,” the ministry said in its email.

The ministry did not explain what it defines as a liability or whether it would include a dam failure that could lead to environmental damage or deaths.

Among other findings, the audit discovered:

  • 196 dams were not listed in provincial government records; 
  • there was no province-wide process to identify dams built without authorization;
  • many dams didn’t meet regulatory requirements and the ministry’s tracking, and;
  • follow-up on deficiencies was inadequate. 

“Neither the ministry nor dam owners will know if dams are ‘safe,’ ‘reasonably safe’ or ‘not safe’ if the ministry does not verify that dam safety review reports meet requirements and does not update the database with key information,” Pickup noted in the report, Oversight of Dam Safety in British Columbia.

“Nor will the ministry know about problems that need attention to make dams safe,” the report said. “For example, an officer learned of a dam safety review report that had a ‘not safe’ conclusion, but the previous officer had not flagged it for follow-up. It was two years before the officer learned the dam was not safe and took appropriate action.”

A total of 92 unauthorized water impoundments and dams have been built in northeast B.C. to service the oil and gas industry, in particular water-intensive fracking operations. This image shows an authorized Encana dam and reservoir near Farmington, B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Site C not included in report

The audit did not include the troubled $16 billion Site C dam on the Peace River that is being built on a weak foundation — raising safety concerns in downstream communities — because the project is still under construction. 

Pickup’s report follows an investigation by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives which revealed that BC Hydro has known for well over a decade that the Peace Canyon dam on the Peace River is built on weak, unstable rock and that an earthquake triggered by a nearby natural gas industry fracking or disposal well operation could cause the dam to fail.

It also comes after the 2010 failure of the privately owned earthen Testalinden Dam in the Okanagan, which destroyed or damaged five homes and caused significant damage to crops and farm equipment, sending debris over 200 metres of Highway 97 and blocking several secondary roads. The Testalinden dam failure is estimated to have cost millions of dollars.

The report found the ministry did not have a province-wide process to identify unauthorized dams that are built without a water licence. 

“The ministry discovered, by chance, up to 24 unauthorized dams per year, depending on the region,” the report observed. “For example, an unauthorized dam may be reported by a neighbour or a government employee who spots the dam while doing another task.”

The report also found that four out of 10 dam safety officers had a backlog of reports to review regarding the safety of high-consequence dams. While the average time to accept safety reports was 20 months, some took eight years. 

The ministry did not have complete and accurate information about dams it regulates, meaning that “it did not have all the information it needed for effective oversight,” the audit found. 

The ministry also did not adequately verify dam owner compliance with regulatory requirements, the report noted.  

“This increased the risk that dam owners might not meet regulatory safety requirements. It also increased the risk that their dams could threaten public safety.”

Audit made nine recommendations

Furstenau said the findings point to the chronic under-funding of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

“As indicated in this report, there is a lack of staff and capacity to do this work. And this is just one segment of that ministry’s responsibilities … this ministry seems to be deeply under-resourced.” 

“It’s yet another Auditor General report that identifies that this province is not doing what it needs to do when it comes to oversight regulation and enforcement of activities that are happening on the land base — and particularly industrial activities,” Furstenau said, pointing to a 2016 audit that found the government’s mines monitoring and inspection program was woefully inadequate and did not protect the province from significant environmental risks. 

The auditor general made nine recommendations to improve the ministry’s oversight of dam safety. Recommendations include improving processes to verify dam owner compliance with regulations and improved monitoring of compliance and enforcement activities. 

The ministry said it accepted all the recommendations.

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