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Report says province failed to warn public about Testalinda Dam hazard
Oliver and Osoyoos officials agree with a recent report that the provincial government failed in its obligation to warn the public about the Testalinda dam hazard.
In her December 2 report, privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham stated there was an “urgent and compelling” need for public disclosure of information about the risk of significant harm to the environment or the safety of residents downstream of the dam.
The dam on Mt. Kobau broke on June 13, 2010, sending tons of debris down Testalinda Creek. It destroyed several homes and orchards, causing millions of dollars in damage. All of the property owners have since been compensated for their losses.
Denham said Ministry of Forests inspection reports (dating back to 1977) consistently state that the dam needed to be replaced due to the potential hazard to individuals and property.
The Testalinda dam was a privately-owned earthen dam constructed in the 1930s on Mount Kobau west of Osoyoos. The dam collected water for irrigation purposes.
The dam had a series of owners, and was the subject of concerns and warnings from water engineers since the 1970s.
After a 1977 inspection, a professional engineer stated in a report that the present condition of the dam required it to be either reconstructed or removed.
After a 1978 inspection, a professional engineer stated, “The dam in its present condition is a hazard to life and property to some of the settled areas along the Osoyoos-Oliver highway which lies downstream of the Testalinda Lake dam.”
Subsequent inspection reports state the same hazards and the same recommendations, but nothing was done.
Denham said the ministry was obliged to notify downstream residents when the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) came into force in 1993.
“When FIPPA came into force the most recent information available was the 1992 report. That report did not indicate an imminent risk of failure; nor did the 1999 site visit,” Denham said.
The ministry asserts that the dam safety officer conducting the 1992 inspection and the 1999 site visit believed there was no imminent danger of dam failure.
The ministry also states that Elkink Ranch Ltd., who owned the dam and the water rights, was responsible for the maintenance of the dam since the early 1980s, but the company did not report the constricted overflow culvert, which caused the breach.
According to the ministry, the dam failed due to a combination of factors including higher than normal snowpack, twice the normal rainfall, and a constriction of the overflow pipe.
Denham noted that in five reports, the ministry recommended to the dam’s owner (Ace Elkink) that he replace the dam. (Following the mudslide, it was reported that one property owner physically assaulted Elkink at the Oliver airport.)
Denham said the disclosure of the inspection reports would have clearly been in the public interest.
“The information about the risk of failure of the dam was information that the public did not know and that would have likely resulted in the local citizenry, at the very least, pressuring government to take remedial action.”
Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson said that dams on private land have always been difficult for government to monitor, and inspections on all of these dams would require a lot of personnel.
Larson said she believes most of the private owners are responsible citizens who would not put the public at risk.
“Could more staff at forests have prevented this issue? I don’t know. I do know the government has settled all the claims and people have moved on with their lives.”
Area C director Allan Patton said the good news is the government has stepped up enforcement and is now inspecting and monitoring dams in BC more thoroughly. “They know they have to improve communication (with the public).”
Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes said the property owners should have been informed of the risk prior to the slide.
He noted there were at least six inspections dating back decades that indicated there was an immediate risk to property and homes.
“They recommended dam replacement or to have the dam breached (but) it seems the reports were not acted on.”
Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells could not be reached for comment.
Special to the Times