SFN hopes to introduce new process on dam issue

NANAIMO – Chief expresses a growing concern about city's approach to dam removal, rebuilding

Snuneymuxw First Nation will meet with city officials this week to express concerns about the approach being taken on the removal and potential rebuilding of two Colliery dams and to suggest a new public process be put in place that engages all stakeholders.

Snuneymuxw Chief Douglas White III said he was “totally taken by surprise” by council’s recent decision to remove the dams and rebuild them with a rough-in for hydroelectric power generation on the lower dam.

White said the city had consulted with Snuneymuxw officials last fall indicating it needed to remove the dams to mitigate risk to citizens should the dams suddenly fail, but said SFN was never consulted about rebuilding them.

“The possibility of rebuilding the dams was not discussed with Snuneymuxw before the city passed a resolution in May saying it would rebuild the dams,” said an SFN release. “Generally speaking building dams is a far more complicated proposition, given Snuneymuxw’s fisheries on the Chase River. Dual processes of removing the dams, and then rebuilding them, also raises new fisheries concerns.”

The provincial Dam Safety Branch categorized the lower and middle Colliery dams as extreme risks after an inundation study last year revealed about 150 human lives could be lost should the dams fail in a seismic or extreme rainfall event. Council moved to remove the dams this July, a decision heavily opposed by Nanaimo citizens. An engineering report released earlier this spring said removing the dams would cost an estimated $5.5 million without contingencies, while removing them and rebuilding them would cost an estimated $8.6 million.

Given public pressure to keep the park in its current state, council defeated a motion to hold off on removing the dams until 2014 before rebuilding them in stages, but did approve the immediate removal of the dams with a promise to begin rebuilding them next summer.

“I recognize this matter has gotten extremely complicated for everybody,” said White in a release. “I know the mayor, council and staff have been making strong efforts to deal with this complexity, and that many citizens are dedicating their time, intelligence and energy to this matter. Snuneymuxw’s goal remains to try to play a positive and constructive role, while also ensuring that our treaty-protected fisheries on the Chase River are respected.”

Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan said there was no consultation with SFN prior to the 5-4 vote to remove and rebuild the dams because there was no clear indication which way the vote would go.

“Until I had a mandate from council there wasn’t anything to tell him,” said Ruttan. “It would have been presumptuous for me to guess in advance how council would vote.”

Ruttan added that he has been in discussions with White on the issue, and when city and Snuneymuxw councils meet this week Ruttan hopes both positions can be clarified.

White said stepping back and introducing a new public process that would explore alternatives would benefit everybody.

“If the city and citizens are now interested in keeping the dams, then it speaks to the need for a different kind of discussion and dialogue,” said White. “All alternatives need to be explored for keeping the dams. For us that would mean bringing to the table how our treaty-protected fisheries would fit with each of those options.”