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3rd April 2018
...Continued from Part one

Some kind of failure

The scant details on the June 2015 incident — a failure of some kind — at a Progress Energy dam site are contained in an “assessment report” written 11 months later (on May 26, 2016) by the OGC’s then-chief hydrologist Allan Chapman.

According to the assessment report, the chief hydrologist was not happy with what he found. Chapman discovered during his field visit that Progress had built the dam to capture freshwater from two streams. Under provincial water laws, the company had to apply for a licence before diverting water from streams.

That had not happened.

The dam was 10 metres high and stored roughly five times more water than the amount spilled during the Testalinden disaster. That made the dam a fully regulated structure under provincial laws, meaning that before it was built engineering plans should have been submitted to provincial dam safety officials.

That didn’t happen either.

Then, in spring or early summer 2015 — Chapman was uncertain when — the dam experienced some kind of failure.

“I cannot determine the mode of failure,” Chapman wrote in his report, noting that the dam’s reservoir could possibly have overfilled and the water overtopped the structure.

“There is evidence of substantial water and sediment movement into the forest downslope of the dam,” Chapman wrote, noting that there were “mud and splash lines on trees” about one metre above ground level, and that those splash lines extended 100 metres or more into the forest “approximately 100 metres downslope” of the dam.

For any oil and gas industry workers in the immediate vicinity downhill of the dam that day, the mudflow could have had deadly consequences.

More than a year after Chapman’s visit, in response to questions emailed to Progress Energy by the CCPA, the company acknowledged that an event had, indeed, occurred at the site — but not a failure of the dam per se.

In the email, Progress’s vice-president of external affairs and communications, Liz Hannah, said that during construction of the dam “frozen material had been excavated from the pond area and stored in the northwest corner of the site. During melting conditions, a portion of this frozen saturated material had mobilized and run offsite onto a Progress right of way and into the adjacent forested Crown land.”

Copies of photos included in Hannah’s email show a very large stream of dried and caked mud that she said had been carried away from the dam site.

“It is correct that a portion of the excavated soil pile failed,” Hannah concluded in her email, “but the dam itself did not.”

By the time of Chapman’s spring 2016 report, the OGC knew it had allowed a big problem to develop on its watch. Progress Energy and other companies had built many unlicensed dams on Crown or public lands — dams that the OGC could have, and should, have stopped. It was also clear that many more such dams had been built on private lands, dams that the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development also could, and should, have stopped.

At the time, provincial regulators didn’t know how many dams there were. They also didn’t know where the dams were located, what waters they impounded or how safe or unsafe they might be.

Scrambling to quantify just how many such dams there were, the OGC sent a letter on May 13, 2016, to companies drilling and fracking for gas in B.C. The companies were instructed to report back on all “fresh water storage” structures they had built including information on dam heights, water sources and the amounts of water stored behind the dams.

The letters also instructed the companies to supply “produced, signed and sealed” documents from professional engineers on the “structural integrity” of the dams. The companies were also told that their engineers must report on any “risk to public safety, the environment, or other property” that the dams posed.

Once the responses came in, the OGC concluded that Progress Energy had built roughly half of 51 unauthorized dams, all but three of which are located on Crown lands. It is now up to the OGC to approve or disapprove the dams retroactively.

Built without required permits

Subsequent work by the ministry revealed that in addition to those 51 unregulated dams, another 41 were built without the required permits and that the bulk of those dams are on private lands, including farmlands in B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve.

Two unregulated dams built by Progress Energy in 2012 and 2014 are particularly problematic because they are so big. One is nearly 23 metres high or roughly as tall as a seven-storey apartment building and the other is roughly as high as a five-storey building. The taller of the two earthen structures is referred to in various documents as the “d-42-k” or Lily dam.

Both dams qualified as “reviewable projects” under B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Act, meaning that each of them should have undergone provincial environmental assessments first to determine whether Progress would be allowed to build them at all.

But the company never alerted the Environmental Assessment Office of its intentions to build the dams and Progress subsequently took the extraordinary step of asking the EAO to exempt the dams from review after the fact.

The EAO eventually ordered the company to drain almost all the water behind the massive structures and is expected to soon issue its decision on the company’s request for retroactive exemption. Several organizations including the Blueberry River First Nation and the CCPA filed documents with the Environmental Assessment Office urging that the company’s application be rejected.

A photocopied photo included in the FOI documents obtained by the CCPA shows a tension crack at the top of one sloped wall of the towering Lily dam near Mile 156 of the Alaska Highway. The 23-metre-high structure’s “live storage” volume — the amount of water that could be unleashed should the dam fail — is more than 20 million gallons or enough to fill 30 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Another email in the FOI package quotes an OGC official saying there was evidence the massive structure was “moving,” a sign that the dam’s earthen walls or berms were slowly shifting, potentially causing the dam to become unstable.

Since the first stories on the sprawling network of unauthorized dams were published by the CCPA on May 3, 2017, belated inspections by compliance and enforcement personnel with the Oil and Gas Commission and Environmental Assessment Office uncovered significant problems at 16 unlicensed dams on Crown lands. Companies were ordered to take corrective action, including draining much of the water behind many of the dams to lower the risk of catastrophic failures.

Further problems were identified at another dozen unlicensed dams built on Crown lands, and the province could still issue more orders.

And, more problems may yet come to light at other unlicensed dams, in particular at the 41 built on private lands and recently identified by the government.

All of this makes the government’s pre-election strategy to suppress the release of information on the problematic dams more vexing. No environmental concerns? No risks to human health and safety? How did the government possibly draw such conclusions when documents in its possession said otherwise?