Oops!…They Did It Again

Ron Bolin: July 16, 2014


Just after coming clean about the Leadercast fiasco –and at the same meeting at which the costs of same to Nanaimo taxpayers were released- Council reverted to form on July 14, 2014. Staff put forward three recommendations for proceeding with the drama which has been generated around the Colliery Dams. Unless you have been out of town or were avoiding City issues for your sanity, you will know that back in 2012 Council Decided in a secret in-camera meeting that the Colliery Dams and their Lakes were to be destroyed on the grounds of imminent dam failure by cataclysmic earthquake leading to some 150 dealths on the Harewood Plain.
The attempt to sell this bill of goods ran headlong into a storm of opposition from citizens of all stripes and not only those in the Harewood area. Council, not wishing a citizens’ uprising, and taking their lead from a dramatic last minute speech from Doug White III, then Chief of the Snuneymuxh band, counseling the need for more and better information, agreed that if a warning siren were purchased and signs warning of the imminent and catastrophic danger of the dams were installed, we could perhaps take time to evaluate the situation.
In 2013 Council established a Technical Committee made up of City Staff, the Provinces Dam Safety Branch, the Snuneymuxh and a citizen’s group, the CDPPS (Colliery Dams Park Preservation Society) to examine the situation: And what an examination it has been. Doing later what should have been done prior, an extensive engineering examination of the dams was undertaken over the period from mid-2013 to mid-2014 and the results of that examination were recently released. The upshot of that examination is that the dams are solid and that the worst to be expected in an earthquake would be some cracks in the dams which would lead to zero (0) deaths in the Harewood Plain: (The effect of the earthquake on other city infrastructure remains unexamined).
That threat to the Park and the inhabitants of Harewood by earthquake having been shown to be without merit, a new hobgoblin was needed to stir the pot. It arrived in the form of predicated storms of biblical proportion threatening to overtop the dams (to say nothing of the rest of the city) and require extensive and expensive upgrades to the spillway or top of the dam on the order of $7 – 8 million or more along with lengthy and extensive disruption of the environment of the Park and its use by Citizens and visitors. This may be in homage to the Provincial Dam Safety Branch which seems to suddenly have found imminent danger lurking where it was previously hidden by the earthquake –and of course, dams can be dangerous. Not as dangerous as wildfires…. but dangerous nevertheless.
How much the latest plan is due to the demands of the Dam Safety Branch and how much to the needs of our Staff and Council to preserve face given their last Chicken Little approach to earthquakes is a matter of conjecture. What is not a matter of conjecture is that in the over 100 year history of the dams, they are not known to have overtopped even once. The closest they have come to overtopping is some 50 cm or ½ meter short of the mark, thus providing considerable leeway. But of course we must consider that with climate change it could be that the storms that bear down on Nanaimo in the next century may be mightier than those of the past. We could have rains of biblical proportions and this could use up our existing leeway and require more. Besides, the Dam Safety Branch wants us to have more, so in our usual pattern in dealing with higher authorities, when they say jump, we say, “How High?”
Two proposals have been presented to Council: one which involves lowering the lower lake by some 10 feet, close the lower part of the park for the summer months and blasting a new spillway in the lower dam which is both much deeper and wider than the one which has sufficed for the last century and is estimated to cost $8.1 million.
Alternatively the staff proposed an Overtopping option which again closes the park for an extended period and involves digging up the top and back side of the lower dam and mixing it with cement in a manner like that used to prevent the Conference Centre from sinking into the old landfill downtown. This option is estimated at $7.2 million.
An alternative Overtopping Option has been proposed by a reputable firm in the embankment stabilization industry which has provided a letter to the City which guarantees to undertake the use of their proprietary technology to permit overtopping of both the upper and lower Colliery dams for a maximum cost to the City of $3 million.
We now return to Monday’s Council meeting where Staff offered three recommendations regarding where the City should go from where we were that evening:
1) release the Colliery Dams Technical Committee minutes to the public;Why this has not been done with all documents all along is not understandable: But… Council voted to adopt this recommendation and they should be available to us rabble soon.

2) schedule a Public Information meeting on the Colliery Dams; Staff wished this meeting to take place on July 22, 2014. Council did not allow itself to be outfoxed in this matter and acted wisely in putting this meeting off until there has been time for the format of such a meeting to be developed and time for the public to absorb the as yet unreleased information needed for a decision in this matter.

3) return to Council with a report outlining next steps/decision process on options and funding at a future Council meeting. This sounds innocuous enough given the above two recommendations as adopted, until the direct question was asked about whether the alternative overtopping option which is both much less expensive and much less invasive of the Parks environmental and amenity values would be considered in this report. Mr. Swabey responded that it would NOT be considered unless Staff were directed to do so by Council. Almost immediately thereafter the vote on this recommendation was taken and Council voted 4 to 3 to adopt it without providing further direction to Staff.  Oops, They did it Again…

Time is not of the essence. Why Council should by this indirect means advise Staff to overlook a proposal from a reputable firm in the industry which potentially provides to the citizens of Nanaimo with a very large saving in cost as well as in the amenity and environmental aspects of the park boggles the mind. It is greatly to be hoped that one of the four who voted for the unchanged third recommendation or one of the two who were absent from Monday’s meeting will reflect on the situation and ask for a revote on the matter at our next Council Meeting on August 11.

What’s your position on the issue?