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Archeologists ask for park inventory

A new angle has been unearthed that could muddy the waters for future work on two dams slated for removal at Colliery Dam Park.

The Archeological Society of British Columbia–Nanaimo approached council Monday concerned that the proposed removal of the lower and middle dams at the park could disturb a cemetery protected under the Heritage Conservation Act.

Brent Whitford, board member of ASBC-Nanaimo, said in 2010 the archeological branch learned of an historic cemetery called the Pest House Cemetery. Dating back to 1908, the facility was used as a quarantine to house men working on the E&N rail line who had contracted smallpox. Some men who did not survive the disease were buried in a small cemetery near the corner of Wakesiah Avenue and Nanaimo Lakes Road, now known as archeological site DhRx-126.

The Nanaimo archeological society branch is asking that an archeological inventory be completed within the legal boundaries of Colliery Dam Park, followed by an archeological impact assessment in advance of any proposed changes to the park, including the removal or replacement of the dams, as well as archival research into the Pest House Cemetery. The society is also asking to be included as a stakeholder in decisions regarding the park and that the city pay for the archeological assessment and inventory.

“It’s kind of a catch-22 with archeological remains,” said Whitford. “If you don’t know they’re there then you don’t know you need to protect them. So what we’re asking for is an inventory be done of the entire park within the boundaries for any future work that might come up in the park.”

On the same day, city council met with representatives from the provincial Dam Safety Branch and Save the Colliery Dams neighbourhood group, residents concerned with the fate of the dams.

Last week, the city was advised by the province that both the lower and middle Colliery dams were assigned Level 1 risk, the highest risk level possible.

According to the province, out of B.C.’s 1,649 regulated dams, 38 are rated as having an extreme consequence in the event of failure. A letter from the Dam Safety Branch to the city says of all the dams in the province, only the lower and middle dams at Colliery Dam Park employ the Level 1 risk level.

“Our office is presently satisfied with the City of Nanaimo’s ongoing response and emergency preparedness to this high-level risk,” says the letter. “Please proceed with your planned removal of Middle Chase River Dam and Lower Chase River Dam as soon as possible.”

The city is currently working on two parallel approaches to the dams. The first includes continuing with the pre-work required to remove the dams and drain the lakes to eliminate any danger to life in the event of a dam failure, likely from a catastrophic earthquake or extreme rain event. The other action being undertaken by the city is to explore alternatives to removing the dams, an option preferred by many local residents who want to see the park and existing lakes kept intact despite the possible consequences of a breach.

It is estimated that dozens of lives could be lost if the reservoirs were to rush down the Chase River drainage into Harewood.

If adequate options to removal aren’t found, the dams are scheduled to be removed this summer when water flow is at its lowest.

“At the meeting (Monday morning) between the city, representatives of the Dam Safety Branch and Save the Colliery Dams group ... it was confirmed that if the reservoirs are contained in their present capacity the dams would be required to meet the rigours of the one-in-10,000-year seismic event,” said Coun. Jim Kipp. “This is because of the extreme consequence of a failure.”

It is estimated that remediation or replacement of the dams to bring them to such a standard could cost between $20-30 million. Removal is estimated to cost $7 million.

Jeff Solomon, Save the Colliery Dams representative, said options could include draining just one of the reservoirs, or reducing water levels behind the dams to mitigate risk.

“Those are only a couple things we talked about,” said Solomon. “There are many more options that could be considered if the goal is to mitigate risk. Unfortunately, the dam safety guys are only interested in eliminating risk, and they don’t see the social value those lakes have to the community.”

He and other members of the neighbourhood group will be presenting an update to the public at 6:30 p.m. at John Barsby Community School tonight (Jan. 31) in the gym.

A previous meeting last fall attracted around 500 concerned citizens.

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