Discussions turn to second-best options on dams

NANAIMO – The city will review options for Colliery dams after news its standards to rebuild are higher than B.C. requirements

The City of Nanaimo planned to rebuild the Colliery dams at much higher standards than the province requires, prompting some to ask if taxpayers should pay for the best when second-rate is good enough.

Nanaimo city officials announced this week they will take another look at options for the Colliery dams as part of a 30-day consultation process with the Snuneymuxw First Nation. The work will include a review of original cost estimates, which were based on rebuilding the dams at a much higher standard than the province requires.

The City of Nanaimo had decided to build new structures with enough strength that even in a major quake, they wouldn’t need repairs. But the B.C. Dam Safety Branch only asks that the dams don’t fail.

Park advocates say they believe the original standards were ridiculous and too expensive for taxpayers at a total estimated cost of $11.2 million. They question whether people should be on the hook for eliminating all the risk for the dams when there are less-expensive measures that could be just as acceptable to the province. Advocates, like Jeff Solomon with the Colliery Dam Preservation Society, are pleased the city is now taking the time to review the decision.

Mayor John Ruttan said the city is willing to look over its studies but he is not convinced a ‘second-class’ dam will give taxpayers the best value for their dollar and says the ongoing process to review and consult is making the dam demolition physically unlikely this summer.

“I am a little uncomfortable at putting in a second-class dam,” Ruttan said. “If you save $500,000, but the dam doesn’t meet the same standard, is it money well spent or well saved? I don’t know.”

The mayor said the city hasn’t previously looked at alternative standards to rebuilding the century-old dams, taking the position that “a stronger dam is a safer dam.” A dam built to a lesser standard could require annual maintenance and could fracture during a major earthquake, he said.

Concern from the pubic about its procedure and calls from Snuneymuxw for cheaper alternatives, however, has city officials looking into less expensive measures to meet provincial dam safety standards.

The research is critical, according to Snuneymuxw Chief Doug White III, who believes it could yield significant cost changes. The original estimates were not affordable and he wonders if the city overlooked other feasible options for the century-old dams in the quest to rebuild the best.

“If the standards and parameters were set and tuned into what the Dam Safety Branch and industry standards were as opposed to the (highest possible standard), it might open up new possibilities,” he said.

Solomon has been excluded from consultation talks between the city and Snuneymuxw, but said he absolutely agrees with the need to take a second look at options for Colliery Dam Park, especially when the project has a “dramatic” effect on taxpayers.

The City of Nanaimo had planned to demolish the dams this summer and rebuild sometime next year, but according to the mayor it is unlikely both dams will be taken down even if there is a desire to remove them. The latest research and consultation has shrunk the time frame construction can occur. And while it may be good news for opponents to the project, taxpayers continue to be liable for the risk until there is mitigation, Ruttan said.