Les Leyne: Dam inspectors stayed mum about risk

Picture B.C.’s dam-safety office, responsible for inspecting dams and reporting on their condition.

It kept an eye on an old, poorly maintained, ill-designed private irrigation dam in the hills near Oliver and wrote reports over the years citing problems.

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Nothing was done about any of them.

At what point does that office have an obligation to publicly warn people below the dam that — as some of its reports explicitly state — their lives and property are in danger?

Information law in B.C. expressly requires the office to do just that. But in a report issued Monday, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham found that requirement is news to a lot of government departments responsible for people’s safety and well-being.

She expressed serious concern over a widespread lack of awareness about a mandatory duty officials have to alert the public in certain situations.

The law states two situations where government must without delay disclose information. One is in cases involving any risk of significant harm to the environment or health and safety of people. The other is where disclosure is for any other reason clearly in the public interest.

The requirement is generally followed in cases where water and air advisories are issued, or notices of disease outbreaks. The vast majority of such disclosures are by police, warning about release of dangerous offenders.

But across government, Denham found most offices aren’t fully aware of the requirement, or think it’s discretionary.

She wants the law rewritten slightly to lower the threshold for disclosing information, so that there is no requirement for “temporal urgency.”That would set up a standard requirement to disclose public-interest matters routinely, rather than in urgent situations.

There’s not much question the dam inspectors flunked the standard.

Denham’s report stems from five complaints from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.

She dismissed four of them, but she found the complaint about the dam-inspection office valid.

The old Testalinden dam collapsed in June 2010. Heavy rain, a big snowpack and a blocked culvert played a role. A handful of homes and farms were destroyed and a highway was flooded. There was no loss of life, by the grace of God.

Subsequently, the government’s handling of dam-inspection duties was thrashed out and found wanting. Denham looked at it purely from the disclosure point of view: Inspectors had a legal duty to warn people below the dam. Did they fulfil it? Of course not.

The dam was built in the 1930s and engineers started warning about it in the 1970s.

1977: “Present condition requires it be either reconstructed or ... removed.”

1978: “The dam in its present condition is a hazard to life and property to some of the settled areas along the Osoyoos-Oliver highway.”

1980: “The dam in its present condition is a hazard.”

1985: “Hazard. Water Management Program recommends that it be replaced.”

1988: “Very poor state of repair ... should be replaced. Most of the repairs listed on this report have been requested previously ... No attempt has been made to carry out our instructions.”

It was last inspected in 1999 and no report was even written then. When it collapsed in 2010, all hell broke loose. Dam inspectors raced all over B.C. and audited hundreds of dams. Staffing was beefed up, policies improved and people were assured it was unlikely to happen again.

But the secondary question, after “Why was nothing done?” was: “Why was no one even told?”

The government told Denham the evidence didn’t show that the risk met the threshold required to sound the alarm. It took the ludicrous position that the dam lasting until 2010 proved the risk was low at the time in question.

Cabinet minister Steve Thomson, responsible for the dam office, said they don’t fully agree with Denham’s interpretations, but the report is valuable. He said government now understands the obligation and is more proactive about disclosing dam conditions.

Taxpayers have paid about $9 million to cover downstream Testalinden losses. Given the history, we got off easy.

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