Dec 1, 2020

Who’s minding the shop at Site C?

Site C in early October, shortly after the Peace River was diverted so that construction could begin of the massive earth-filled dam that will permanently block the river. Photo Credit: Jayce Hawkins

Appointment of engineer with long-term ties to BC Hydro to be government’s “independent” advisor on dam’s construction raises vexing questions

In 2011, his last year as a salaried employee at BC Hydro, Tim Little earned just under $210,000 as the Crown corporation’s chief engineer.

The next year, after decades of service for the publicly owned hydroelectric utility, Little struck out on his own. But like a satellite circling the Earth, he remained locked in BC Hydro’s orbit.

When work got underway at the Site C dam, the single-most expensive publicly funded infrastructure project in British Columbia’s history, money started flowing to Little’s consulting company from his former employer.

According to financial statements, BC Hydro’s payments to TE Little Consulting Inc. averaged more than $300,000 per year for the next five years, for a total compensation of $1.57 million.

Little is one of a small corps of engineers working at Site C. But what elevates his rank is his title and role. As Site C’s “independent engineer,” Little’s job is to report regularly on all facets of the dam’s construction to the provincial government.

As a Crown corporation, BC Hydro has one shareholder—the provincial government. So it makes sense that the government seeks out “independent” advice on the project, and that it carefully considers that advice to protect the interests of all residents of the province.

As a Crown corporation, BC Hydro has one shareholder—the provincial government.

But by any commonly accepted definition of that word, Little doesn’t fit the bill. No matter how hard and how professionally he works, his long-time association with BC Hydro inevitably raises a question about how “free from outside control” he is. And that is far from the only one. An investigation by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) raises three related and equally important questions:

  • Why did the government department in charge of the safe operation of all dams in BC deem Little to be the “appropriate and satisfactory” choice for the job?
  • What did front-line provincial government engineers and dam safety officials do for the past five years with information received from Little?
  • And why did the government effectively rubber stamp a report from Little that recommended a radical change to the way a major part of Site C was to be built, a part of the dam now beset with geotechnical problems? 

It’s time the government provided some answers.

Silent on safety

As anyone paying attention to the Site C saga knows, the financial stakes of the project are extraordinary. About $5 billion has already vaporized at Site C. Estimates place the completed cost at $12 billion, a projection that could easily rise due to the ‘project risk’ geotechnical problems at the site.

Thanks to a recent in-depth investigation by The Narwhal, we now know that senior government officials knew of those problems at least 18 months ago. Yet the public didn’t hear a peep about them until July 31, when energy minister Bruce Ralston announced that Site C had hit serious roadblocks and that the government was bringing in former deputy finance minister, Peter Milburn, to scrutinize the trouble-ridden project with “fresh eyes.”

At the time, Ralston was silent on the provincial government’s public safety responsibilities at Site C, which is a notable omission considering that if geotechnical problems are not addressed properly at the construction project the end result may be an unsafe dam.

Under provincial laws, the government is directly responsible for the safety of all dams built in BC and with good reason. If a completed Site C dam were to fail, the consequences could be catastrophic for communities downriver including the tiny enclave of Old Fort, just downstream of the dam, and the 6,800 residents across the provincial border in Peace River, Alberta.

The BC government’s responsibilities for dam safety are all spelled out in the provincial Dam Safety Regulation, which lays out requirements “for all aspects of dam design, construction, operation, maintenance, removal and decommissioning” and gives the government broad powers to ensure that dams are built to the highest safety standards.

An “appropriate and satisfactory” choice

The provincial government office headed by the Comptroller of Water Rights is in charge of the safety of all dams in the province and also has responsibility for issuing water licences, without which dams cannot legally be built.

Before BC Hydro started construction of Site C, it had to apply to the provincial government for two water licences that would allow it to divert the waters of the Peace River.

One important condition that the government placed in those licences required BC Hydro to “retain” a registered professional to be Site C’s “independent engineer.” The independent engineer’s job was to report to a professional engineer in the water comptroller’s office on all aspects of Site C’s evolving construction.

The government engineer and provincial dam safety officials would then carefully consider the independent engineer’s reports before deciding whether or not to issue permits to BC Hydro, known as “leaves to commence construction.” Only with the issuance of those permits, would BC Hydro be allowed to proceed to each new phase of Site C’s construction.

All of this was spelled out in the licence documents, which clearly gave the provincial government powers to intervene should it feel it necessary to ensure the safety of the project.

BC Hydro nominated Little to be that independent voice and the government unreservedly accepted the nomination.

Ken Farquharson, a retired civil engineer who worked for 44 years on major engineering projects, including BC Hydro’s Mica and Keenleyside dams, called the government’s decision to accept Little’s nomination troubling.

“He’s been embedded with BC Hydro and the Site C project for too long and isn’t bringing a fresh set of eyes to the project,” Farquharson said. “For a project of this scale and complexity, the independent engineer should have unfettered freedom to criticize. The government, in my view, made a mistake in accepting his nomination.”

Marc Eliesen, a former president and CEO of BC Hydro, went one step further. Little’s appointment “has the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Eliesen said. “Mr. Little worked for BC Hydro for a significant number of years, and now has been asked to basically approve the work of his former employer, including work that he may previously have been involved with.”

When the CCPA learned of Little’s appointment early this year, it filed several questions by email with provincial Comptroller of Water Rights, Ted White.

The CCPA asked White whether his ministry had a policy on how long a previous employee of BC Hydro would have to wait before being eligible for a position such as an independent engineer.

White did not answer the question directly, but did say:

“A condition of the water licences for the project requires BC Hydro to nominate a person as an independent engineer. It is the decision of the comptroller of water rights with the B.C. government to determine if the nominated individual is appropriate and satisfactory,” White wrote. “The comptroller is satisfied with BC Hydro retaining Tim Little, P.Eng., as the independent engineer to monitor the construction of the works authorized under conditional water licences C132990 and C132991.”

We made a mistake

As of the end of January, Little had filed a total of “137 reports with recommendations” to the water comptroller’s office, White said. This translates into at least 137 instances where a government engineer and government dam safety officials had opportunities to either accept, reject or modify recommendations made by Little before BC Hydro was allowed to proceed to the next phase of Site C’s construction.

The CCPA asked for copies of all 137 reports and was told by White that they would be provided in a matter of weeks. But after seven weeks, a spokesperson in White’s ministry—the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development—phoned to say that “a mistake” had been made and it would no longer provide the promised reports. The CCPA subsequently filed a Freedom of Information request for copies of all of Little’s reports as well as all of the provincial government’s decisions pertaining to those reports.

While it will be months before the CCPA learns whether any of the reports will be released, two of the documents have come to light thanks to a filing in BC Supreme Court by the West Moberly First Nations. The reports are contained in an appendix to an expert witness statement filed on behalf of the Nations, which tried unsuccessfully to obtain an injunction to prevent some areas of its traditional territory being cleared or impacted by Site C construction.

“Turned around on a dime.”

The first of those two reports, submitted to the water comptroller’s office on June 2, 2017, highlighted that Peace River Hydro Partners, the main civil works contractor for BC Hydro at Site C, had run into a major problem.

Little reported that a drainage tunnel being drilled on the right or south bank of the river was far behind schedule. The original construction plans called for the tunnel to be built first before any concrete was poured at what would eventually become a key component of the dam—a massive 70-metre-high sloped structure known as a buttress.

The idea was that by having the tunnel in place “in advance of buttress construction”, water could be drawn away from the foundation of the heavy structure thus preventing it from moving too much. This was critical because the buttress would physically support key components of the dam including its powerhouse and spillway. Furthermore, all of the weight of that critical infrastructure would sit on top of soft shale “rock,” which many geoscientists and engineers do not consider to be rock at all.

But because of the delays in drilling the tunnel, Peace River Hydro Partners had run into a bind. The construction schedule not only called for the tunnel to be done by then, but for the first of the concrete to be poured that summer.

“As Independent Engineer (IE) for the Site C project, I have received a submission from BC Hydro requesting permission to commence construction of the powerhouse buttress, tailrace wall and downstream spillway stilling basin. Those components are the RCC [roller-compacted concrete buttress] structures scheduled to be constructed in 2017,” Little wrote in his report submitted to Bruce O’Neill, then deputy comptroller of water rights.

Little then recommended that the concrete be poured as per BC Hydro’s request and that in the absence of the critical tunnel, temporary wells be used to assist in water drainage.

On the very same day that Little filed his report, officials in White’s office granted permission for the radically revised construction sequence. Confirmation of the incredibly speedy turnaround is noted in a second report by Little, dated April 18, 2018.

As a former professional engineer with decades of experience, Farquharson said he was deeply troubled by the government’s speedy review and approval.

“Such a rapid turnaround is, in my opinion, a failure on the government’s part,” Farquharson said. “Site C is an incredibly complex project, both from a geotechnical and constructability perspective. I do not believe recommendations of this magnitude coming from a proponent should be turned around on a dime by a government engineer. Spending only a matter of hours on something as important as this is not effective consideration.”

A “spasmodic” back-up system

Thanks to a raft of documents obtained by the CCPA through a Freedom of Information request to WorkSafe BC, we now know far more details on why the drainage tunnel, which was intended to prevent the shale rock underlying the buttress from going rogue, proved so hard to build.

WorkSafe inspectors visiting the construction site ordered halts to tunnel drilling after learning that workers had been exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust for weeks on end in the insufficiently ventilated tunnels.

Later, large sections of concrete used to line the tunnels crashed to the tunnel floors after “anchors” embedded in the soft shale of the tunnel walls gave way, necessitating further delays in tunnel completion as WorkSafe inspectors issued new halt-work orders.

It would take another 16 months after Little’s report in June, 2017, before the tunnel was complete, at which point another large amount of concrete had been laid down at the site—once again before the tunnel was complete, not after, as original construction plans called for.

None of this sat well with a “technical advisory board,” consisting of outside geoscientists and engineers, who were retained by BC Hydro to evaluate Site C as it was constructed. In a report filed with the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) by BC Hydro on March 29, 2018, the advisory board noted its serious concerns about lack of progress with the drainage tunnel, and its implications for the project.

“The design concept for performance of the right bank relies on extensive internal drainage. The delay of these installations increases risk of poor performance. The Project has already accepted some compromise measures associated with delayed start-up of the Drainage Tunnel. Further delay may compromise the integrity of the design.”

The advisory board also warned that it was not impressed with the interim measures put in place to compensate for the tunnel not being built.

“At this time, drainage relies on vertical wells that appear to be operating spasmodically due to a limited number of installed pumps and apparently irregular and unacceptable operating procedures. Local rock movements in the slope are aggravated by water pressure developing in joints within the rock. Efficient drainage is a critical defensive measure.”

“Movement” and “project risk” problems

The advisory board’s warnings, coupled with the government’s speedy approval of Little’s recommendations, takes on added significance in light of known problems that have occurred on the right riverbank where that huge amount of concrete was poured before the critical drainage tunnel was first built.

First, we know that “movement” of the shale rock underneath the heavy roller-compacted concrete buttress has already occurred.

Second, BC Hydro has told the BCUC that “project risk” geotechnical problems have surfaced in precisely the same area where all that concrete was poured before and not after the tunnel was built.

Third, many of those problems pertain to one arm of a highly unusual L-shape dam that was radically redesigned to its current configuration because of known problems with the shale rock at the site. (Little, himself, termed the shale to be “soft rock” or “near rock” while working for BC Hydro’s geotechnical department in 1991.)

All of this raises questions that the provincial government’s latest set of eyes and ears on the project—Peter Milburn—would be well advised to delve into before completing his report.

Who’s minding the shop?

When Premier John Horgan and his NDP colleagues formed a minority government with Green Party MLAs in May 2017, they inherited more than just Site C. They also inherited a problematic “professional reliance” regulatory regime introduced by previous Liberal governments.

Little’s appointment as Site C’s independent engineer is emblematic of that regime.

In a comprehensive report to the provincial government two years ago, lawyer Mark Haddock closely examined professional reliance and its impacts across numerous government departments and natural resource sectors. He described professional reliance as: “ . . . a regulatory model in which government sets the natural resource management objectives or results to be achieved, professionals hired by proponents decide how those objectives or results will be met, and government checks to ensure objectives have been achieved through compliance and enforcement.”

But what happens if the government doesn’t have the tools it needs to do that job?

At the time of Haddock’s report in May 2018, the number of provincial government personnel working on dam safety numbered 16. Today, a little over two years later, that number has shrunk to just 12.

Incredibly, that decline unfolded as Site C was in the early stages of being built, and as an understaffed provincial dam safety office dealt with embarrassing revelations that as many as 92 unauthorized dams had been built on its watch.

Those unpermitted dams, all of which qualified as “regulated structures” under provincial laws, were built by natural gas companies or their contractors to capture water for use in fracking operations.

Not a single company was fined or faced criminal sanctions for building the unpermitted structures in violation of numerous provincial laws.

Many of those dams, as first revealed by the CCPA, would turn out to be structurally unsound and a risk to human health and safety and the environment. Yet not a single company was fined or faced criminal sanctions for building the unpermitted structures in violation of numerous provincial laws.

Haddock also noted in his report, that the most important dam safety officials employed by the provincial government are those with engineering degrees. Five engineers were employed in dam safety positions when he submitted his report. Just three now remain.

“Most dam safety officers are not engineers,” Haddock noted, adding that the absence of such critical talent makes it difficult for the government “to assess engineering documents” and properly identify geotechnical, seismic, hydrotechnical and other risks.

Haddock recommended that if the government is to continue to rely on independent professionals to monitor major projects such as dams, then it should be the government itself or a neutral government body that retains that person, not the company or Crown corporation building the project.

Such an arrangement would effectively sever ties between the proponent and the independent professional and better ensure that the government gets truly independent advice. The government or neutral body would then bill the proponent for all of the independent professional’s costs.

Farquharson said he agrees with such recommendations, but cautions that they cannot deal with the pressing issues of what’s to be done at Site C right now.

“Milburn will likely only give us an introduction to what the real problems are,” Farquharson said. “Given the geotechnical problems at the site and the billions of dollars at stake, all work at Site C should cease until a full, independent review by engineers and geoscientists with no connections to BC Hydro is done. And I’m not alone in thinking that.”

It’s time, indeed, for fresh sets of eyes at Site C. Truly independent, expert eyes.