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Alberta to tighten oversight of dam safety

Minister responds to Auditor General's findings that reporting is inadequate


After the Alberta Auditor General found problems with how dam safety is regulated and monitored, the province’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Kyle Fawcett, has responded.

On March 11, Fawcett issued a statement: “Ensuring public safety is of the utmost importance to this government. Albertans can feel confident that dams in their province are built, maintained and operated in a safe manner, and are aligned with national and international standards and practices.”

Auditor General Merwan Saher had found that the province’s Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) found that the department’s documentation was inadequate so that inspections and their frequency and quality could not be verified. The database was not being updated appropriately and information was missing. He wrote, “While the department does have a registry for dams, its completeness, accuracy and sustainability is lacking.”

Another point he made was that the current system of regulating dam activities was largely based on what the consequences of failure might be, but that this rating was determined by the dam owners. Sometimes the rating was outdated. In the case of coal mine tailing ponds the majority had not been inspected for safety since the 1980s and 90s. During the period of the audit one coal mine had failed in 2013 at the Obed Mountain Mine causing widespread damage. While the dam had been inspected, the structure that failed within the complex had not.

In reassuring the public, Minister Fawcett said: “Dams identified as ‘very high’ and ‘extreme’ consequence are inspected annually by dam owners, qualified engineering consultants and ESRD staff…. Dam owners have comprehensive ongoing monitoring programs in place, above and beyond the regulatory requirements and Canadian Dam Association guidelines.”

He agreed, however, that “we must improve our transparency through more effective record keeping and reporting. The Auditor General has identified opportunities to strengthen our processes and we have already made considerable progress in addressing these recommendations.”

Fawcett also pointed out that while his department, ESRD, oversees water dams, the Alberta Energy Regulator is responsible for coal mine and oil sands tailings ponds. But he said the two government bodies will ensure that the regulation for the safety of all dams is consistent across the province.

The Auditor General’s report also pointed to inadequacies in the province’s identification of flood hazard zones and in limiting land development in those areas. Diana McQueen, Alberta’s Minister of Municipal Affairs, responded, saying the government has identified seven strategies to reduce the impact of flooding, is working with Deltares, a Dutch research foundation, and has 11 new flood-mapping studies in progress.

To read the Alberta Auditor General’s report for March 2015, click here.

To read the Alberta Government response, click here.