City council chose not to roll the dice with human life Monday night and voted to commence removal of the middle and lower colliery dams immediately.
But the same motion, approved 5-4, also requires steps to be taken for the rebuilding of both dams, including the roughing in of hydroelectric capacity in the lower dam, though there is no definite timeline for the reconstruction.
The decision came after final pleas from Nanaimo residents to keep the dams and the lakes, which they say are a vital social and environmental asset for the Harewood community, and that the risk to human life downstream should the dams fail is in such a small percentile that the risk is acceptable.
Lorne Gail, an advocate to keep the dams intact, said structural integrity of the current dams suggests that in the event of an extreme seismic event, the dams might be one of the only structures remaining in Nanaimo.
“Most of the buildings in Nanaimo would collapse if we experienced a devastating earthquake, but those dams will still be there,” said Gail. “In fact, the lakes could be used as part of our emergency preparedness. They would be an asset.”
An estimated 1,800 people live below the dams in the Chase River floodplain, which prompted the provincial Dam Safety Branch to list the danger rating as extreme in the event of failure.
The safety branch strongly advised city council to mitigate the risk as soon as possible.
“The Dam Safety Branch is serious,” said Coun. Diane Brennan. “We can’t stand aside and say it probably won’t happen, because when you say it probably won’t, there is the possibility that it will.”
The dams were constructed 100 years ago to direct water for the purpose of washing coal. The lakes and park are now a well-used recreation area for hiking, swimming and fishing.
Roblyn Hunter says those opportunities will now be lost for people who use the park, and what will be left behind is also a serious safety issue.
“It’s a terrible decision,” said Hunter. “Once the dams are gone there is a very good chance that we won’t get them back. City staff have been adamant they want them gone and there is no timeline to replace them … and leaving the dams without water is terrible for the environment and if we really wanted to mitigate risk we don’t drain the lakes and leave this huge opportunity for someone to get injured.”
Council was not clear on how it would prevent the public from accessing the area from where the two lakes will be drained.
A report issued last week estimates that the total cost to remove both dams and rebuild them will cost $11.2 million. Removing both dams and replacing only the lower dam would cost about $9.5 million.
“It makes sense for the few extra dollars to replace both dams,” said Brennan, adding that the approved motion immediately mitigates risk while initiating the planning to rebuild them.
A motion put forward by Coun. Fred Pattje to put on hold the demolition of both dams until spring 2014, proceed with removal and construction of the middle dam in 2014, and removal and construction of the lower dam in 2015, failed by a vote of 5-4.
The city plans to issue contract tenders for the deconstruction of the dams immediately, with work expected to begin sometime in July when water levels are at their lowest.