Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

Comment: Elliot Lake – a litany of neglect

Justice Paul R. Bélanger’s report on the travesty at the Algo Mall in Elliot Lake in 2012 makes for excellent — if unhappy — reading (see p. 23). Part I of the report describes the litany of bad decisions and neglect...


Justice Paul R. Bélanger’s report on the travesty at the Algo Mall in Elliot Lake in 2012 makes for excellent — if unhappy — reading (see p. 23). Part I of the report describes the litany of bad decisions and neglect that led up to the roof collapse. Almost from the time the mall opened 33 years ago, salt-laden water leaked down into the structure from the parking deck roof. The steel structure rusted, losing 20% of its section in several places. Eventually a single welded connection that had only 13% of its original capacity gave way. The structure collapsed, a hollow core slab it supported fell, and two women below were crushed to death. One of the women may have suffered for at least a day in the rubble before she died.

The purpose of the Inquiry, Justice Belanger wrote, “is not to castigate or chastise; its only purpose in finding fault, if it must, is to seek to prevent recurrence.” And so he dissects the events that caused the collapse as a precursor to proposing new regulations in Ontario. Among other things, he recommends that existing buildings must be regularly inspected, and that professional engineers [like those in the other provinces] must undertake continuing education.

To read through the checkered history of this three-storey 1980s-era mall is to follow a trail of what one can only call ineptitude and complacency. Even at the time it was built, it was known in the construction literature that road salts cause serious corrosion problems in parking decks. At the Algo Mall the roof leaked so chronically that stores had permanent tarp “bladders” to funnel water into buckets. But no-one took decisive action.

As Judge Bélanger notes, “The mall never lacked from professional architectural and engineering oversight.” It had over 30 inspections and visits over its 33 year history, including some by reputable companies.

The Judge finds that the quality of some engineering reports was as patchy as the roof membrane. Some inspecting engineers didn’t bother referring back to previous reports (even those done by their own company). Some did only cursory one-day visual inspections. They visited on days when it wasn’t raining and didn’t bother to talk to the tenants. They didn’t remove ceiling tiles in trouble spots. Their reports were ambivalent and did not insist strongly enough on what was the best and safest remedy.

Tenants complained. Alarms were sounded. But a Notice of Violation sat dormant for three years. Then in 2009 the city issued an Order to Remedy. The owner’s response was to hire de-licensed engineer Robert Wood to do an inspection, then several more in the coming years until the collapse in June 2012. Wood is now facing charges.

Justice Belanger speaks plainly. He points to owners who weren’t willing to spend money even though they had the resources. He points to city officials who let the situation continue because the mall was central to the cultural and economic life of the town. He also points to engineers.

From my own perspective, the history of this mall shows clearly the problems of being too accepting, too sanguine. One way or another clients’ economic interests trumped public safety. And too many people chose to take the easy route, to hope for the best and shunt the problem along to the future.