Canadian Consulting Engineer

Elliot Lake Inquiry prompts soul searching

Catching a few minutes of the live video stream from the Elliot Lake Inquiry or reading the transcripts is fascinating and yet painful. Of particular interest to engineers are the hearings on June 6 and 7, when Robert H. Wood, the former...

August 1, 2013   By Bronwen Parsons

Catching a few minutes of the live video stream from the Elliot Lake Inquiry or reading the transcripts is fascinating and yet painful. Of particular interest to engineers are the hearings on June 6 and 7, when Robert H. Wood, the former engineer and owner of M.R. Wright & Associates, is on the stand. Wood was the person who last inspected the Algo Centre mall and declared it sound.

We must wait for Justice Bélanger’s report to draw its conclusions about the whole mess that resulted in two deaths when the mall collapsed June 23, 2012. What we do know from the forensic NORR report is that the immediate cause of the collapse was the failure of a beam connection due to severe corrosion. We’ve seen the video that shows the car driving across the roof parking lot, the crease appearing in the road surface, then the ground beside it tumbling down. More recent footage showed the two female victims, one holding a shopping cart, chatting happily at the lottery ticket booth in the upper mall moments before their world caved in. This age of video surveillance certainly brings things home.

But if we know what caused the collapse, the question of who is responsible is a lot more muddy. Wood was the last man at the scene, but the mall had been leaking chronically almost since it was built 30 years ago. Was it the original roof design that was at fault, with its hollow precast panels and concrete topping? Or was it partly the fault of the mall owners who didn’t fix the problems adequately, concerned about costs? The city issued an order to have the place fixed two years before the collapse, but soon backed off after receiving a report from M.R. Wright. When people who worked in the mall had concerns (things were so bad, the Zellers had tarps permanently hung from the ceiling), the Ministry of Labour gave them a 1-800 telephone number. You can see how things add up. Several engineering firms did inspections over the years. They wrote reports, and made recommendations, but to little avail.

Hoping to avoid a recurrence of the tragedy, Professional Engineers of Ontario has put some proposals to the Inquiry. They want to see a specialist designation for engineers doing structural inspections, similar to the Struct.Eng. instituted in British Columbia following the Save-On-Foods mall collapse in 1988. PEO also wants guidelines or requirements on how building inspections should be done. For example, they don’t want owners to be able to limit the scope of the work. They want timelines for when recommended work should be completed, and reports to be submitted to municipalities.

Would such provisions have prevented the tragedy that happened in Elliot Lake? Possibly. But rules are still subject to an expert’s interpretation and judgement. Wood, who graduated in civil engineering in the U.K., spent his early career in the industrial sector, including the steel industry. It’s difficult to follow the rambling arguments, but at various points in his testimony Wood suggests that based on his experience he was not concerned about the health of the steel below the leaking parking lot partly because it was thick steel and partly because the drywall below the failed connection was not damaged. He chose not to uncover and measure the connection. He points out there were 2,000+ connections in the structure. He says many other things, like: “I did what I thought I was expected to do.” I leave it to you to read the rest. http://www.elliotlakeinquiry.ca/transcripts


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