Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Elliot Lake Report

On October 15 the Honourable Paul R. Bélanger, Commissioner of the Elliot Lake Inquiry, released his report on the fatal collapse of part of the parking deck roof of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, northern Ontario in June 2012. The...

December 1, 2014   Canadian Consulting Engineer

On October 15 the Honourable Paul R. Bélanger, Commissioner of the Elliot Lake Inquiry, released his report on the fatal collapse of part of the parking deck roof of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, northern Ontario in June 2012. The Commissioner had harsh words for owners, officials and engineers.Here are extracts from the Executive Summary of his report.1

Summary of Conclusions (pp. 4-5)

Although it was rust that defeated the structure of the Algo Mall, the real story behind the collapse is one of human, not material, failure. Many of those whose calling or occupation touched the Mall displayed failings – its designers and builders, its owners, some architects and engineers, as well as the municipal and provincial officials charged with the duty of protecting the public. Some of these failings were minor; some were not. They ranged from apathy, neglect, and indifference through mediocrity, ineptitude, and incompetence to outright greed, obfuscation, and duplicity. Occasional voices of alarm blew by deaf and callous ears. Warning signs went unseen by eyes likely averted for fear of jeopardizing the continuing existence of the Mall – the social and economic hub in Elliot Lake.

Some engineers forgot the moral and ethical foundation of their vocation and profession – to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. They occasionally pandered more to their clients’ sensitivities than to their professional obligation to expose the logical and scientific consequences of their observations. Some of their inspections were so cursory and incomplete as to be essentially meaningless. Others were fundamentally flawed because they were based on false assumptions or calculations.

Some public officials simply lacked competence. Others preferred strict adherence to, and narrow interpretation of, practices, rules, and by-laws rather than conduct based on a meaningful interpretation of their spirit and intent. The institutional and legal relationship among organizations meant to advance the public good operated to disenfranchise the City’s electorate and may have led to tolerating unacceptable conditions at the Mall. Secrecy and confidentiality often trumped candour, transparency, and openness. They pervaded contractual and professional relationships, and even the municipal administration sought to hide some of its activities from public view.

Based on any fair and objective analysis of the history of the Algo Mall as it unfolded during the Commission’s hearings, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that, if any one of the owners, engineers, or officials who were involved with the Mall over its 33 years of existence had insisted, “Enough – this building will fail if it isn’t fixed,” two lives would not have been senselessly and tragically lost. A few people did just that, but they were ignored.

Instead, faced with the clearest of warning signs, owners sold or attempted to sell the problem instead of fixing it. They opted for the narrowest of interpretations of engineering reports – always the least expensive solution that merely repeated past feeble and ineffectual remedies. Many witnesses averred that they were unaware of one of the most basic and widely understood tenets of material science: a combination of water, air, and chlorides makes steel rust; and continuously rusting steel gets progressively weaker as time goes by.

Stated in the broadest of terms, my main conclusions are as follows:

Two people died and approximately 19 were injured after a portion of the Algo Mall collapsed on June 23, 2012.

The collapse was due to the sudden failure at 2:18 p.m. of a connection between one beam and one column of the steel substructure below the parking deck of the Mall.

The failure was the result of the continual and uninterrupted ingress of water and chlorides from the parking deck of the Mall ever since its construction in 1979, resulting in severe corrosion of the connection.

The ingress was the result of a faulty initial design combined with inadequate and incompetent maintenance and repair of the surface of the parking deck.

There were many complaints over the years about the leaking deck and falling pieces of the ceiling.

Municipal authorities ignored repeated complaints and warnings about leaks and material failure.

Municipal authorities did not enforce, or improperly enforced, their own property standards by-laws. Some public officials were apparently unaware of the contents of their own by-laws. The municipality’s predominant focus was non-interference with the Mall – because it was regarded as the social hub of the community and as a major source of tax revenue and employment.

Despite the involvement of the Ministry of Labour with the Mall during most of its existence, its employees never treated the leakage situation with much interest and concern.

Some structural engineers failed to inspect the Mall properly. Engineering reports were of uneven quality, often drafted more with an eye to pleasing clients than proposing effective solutions or warning of potential dangers.

Owners chose cheap and ineffective repairs or opted to sell the Mall when faced with significant repair bills. They actively concealed their knowledge of the parking deck’s condition from the City and from subsequent purchasers.

The last owner (Eastwood Mall Inc.) actively misrepresented the repair work it engaged in and resorted to subterfuge and falsehood to mislead authorities, tenants, and the public.

From Part 1 Recommendations: “The Regulation of the engineering and architecture professions (pp. 35-36)

Recommendation 1.23. The Professional Engineers of Ontario should issue a clear direction to its members that the contents of an engineering report, or draft report, including a Structural Adequacy Report, should not be altered simply because the client requests that it be changed. Rather, any alteration of an engineering report, or draft report, should be based on sound engineering principles or changed facts.

Recommendation 1.24. The Professional Engineers of Ontario should establish a system of mandatory continuing professional education for its members as soon as possible, and in any event no later than 18 months from the release of this Report.

Recommendation 1.27. For the construction of any buildings requiring the services of more than one professional consultant, either a professional engineer or an architect should be designated by the owner or the owner’s agent as the prime consultant to perform the roles and responsibilities of that position, as defined by one or the other or both of the Professional Engineers of Ontario and the Ontario Association of Architects. cce

1 Reproduced from the “Executive Summary of the Report of the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry,” October 15, 2014. (c) Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2014. Reproduced with permission. The full Executive Summary is available at:

http://www.elliotlakeinquiry.ca/report/ES/ELI_ES_E.pdf

Sidebar

PEO Responds

From a press release issued by Professional Engineers Ontario, October 15, 2014

“Our Elliot Lake Advisory Committee will be reviewing the Commissioner’s report in detail to provide advice to PEO Council as we work to implement these recommendations. As PEO’s authority to do so is limited, we will be looking to the Ministry of the Attorney General and the provincial government to receive the tools necessary to put these recommendations into practice, as well as to consider further our ideas for improvement that were not endorsed specifically by the Commissioner.

“In addition to its review of the Commissioner’s report, PEO is continuing its investigations into whether work by PEO licence holders related to the Algo Centre mall was
performed competently and in compliance with the regulations under the Professional Engineers Act, as well as other applicable statutes, regulations, standards, codes, bylaws and rules.”


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