Number of inspections in British Columbia examined in wake of Mount Polley spill

October 14, 2014

Recently released figures show that the British Columbia government conducted significantly fewer engineering inspections following a 2010 reorganization.

In 2010 – the same year that a crack was reported in the dam at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine – the government’s geotechnical engineers conducted just three inspections across the province, down from 22 the year before. The following year, in 2011, only two inspections were completed, The Globe and Mail reported.

Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines, said it appears the Mount Polley dam did not have a geotechnical inspection by ministry staff during those two years. “It doesn’t look like it would have had,” he said in an interview. “I was surprised when I saw the numbers, and not very happy about it.”

The Mount Polley dam failed in August, spilling 24 million cubic meters of water and mine tailings into Quesnel Lake in central B.C. The last geotechnical inspection by the ministry of mines at Mount Polley took place in September, 2013, and resulted in no orders related to the tailings storage facility.

Bennett said there is no evidence that the government’s missed inspections were related to the failure of the dam this year: “There is a rush to judgment right now. … We don’t know it is true.”

The inspection numbers were released in response to media requests.

Bennett openly opposed the 2010 reorganization of the so-called dirt ministries – the government departments responsible for resource development.

The government reorganization in 2010 was designed to reflect a realignment of priorities under then-premier Gordon Campbell. Responsibilities of seven ministries were shuffled to move to a “single team” approach to resource management.

However, a recent report by the Professional Employees Association suggests the decline hasn’t been entirely reversed. Since 2009, the number of government-licensed science officers, including geoscientists and engineers, has shrunk by 15 percent. The report, published last March, warned those cutbacks could put the environment and public safety at risk.

The company’s engineering firm of record reported a crack at least 10 meters in length had been observed in the earthen dam while work was under way to raise it in 2010. That crack was almost a kilometer away from where the dam breached this year. The company’s engineering firm also warned that a number of instruments required to measure water pressure behind the dam were in a state of disrepair, which the company says were later fixed.

The government has not released its geotechnical inspection reports for the Mount Polley dam, but Bennett said he has been assured by his staff that the problems flagged by Mount Polley’s engineering firm were addressed. “They advise me the 2010 deficiencies were rectified.”


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