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A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., on Aug., 5, 2014.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Seven years after a catastrophic dam failure at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia’s interior, the provincial government is still failing its duty to regulate the safety of hundreds of potentially dangerous dams, a new Auditor-General’s investigation has found.

The report, released Tuesday, also follows a fatal operational error in 2020 at the Cleveland dam in North Vancouver, and B.C. Auditor-General Michael Pickup said there are hundreds of high-risk structures around the province that are not properly regulated, posing a threat to people, property and the environment.

“The ministry is not effectively overseeing the safety of dams,” Mr. Pickup said in an interview. “It’s concerning. That increases the risks that dam owners might not meet the requirements for safety, and it increases the risk that their dams could threaten public safety.”

B.C. has 1,000 regulated dams, built for electricity, irrigation and flood control, that are rated “high-consequence” – meaning that a failure could kill people, or damage the environment and property.

While owners are responsible for the safety of their dams, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is supposed to ensure compliance with safety regulations.

In his report, the Auditor-General found a series of gaps in oversight, including that nearly 200 dams that should have been regulated were not.

While the provincial government accepts all nine of his recommendations for change, Mr. Pickup said he was troubled by the province’s vague commitments to fix the problems he identified.

“There’s an agreement that ‘we will do something,’ but it’s short on detail as to what’s going to be done, and when it is going to be done,” he said.

The review identified 87 high-risk dams around the province with significant deficiencies that had not addressed their safety problems for more than seven years, on average.

“The ministry did not promptly and effectively follow up with dam owners to enforce compliance with key regulatory requirements or to correct physical deficiencies,” the report found.

The review also points to reliance on overworked staff and a clunky database that was riddled with errors.

In a sample of dams listed in the government’s database, more than half were missing key information. And almost half of dam safety officers had a backlog of reports to review on whether high-consequence dams are safe. Some dams that require audits have not been audited. The ministry also has no process to track down unregulated dams, and the average time to approve safety reports is 20 months – but some took as long as eight years to process.

“The ministry can’t properly oversee dam owner compliance with the regulations without reliable information, nor can it adequately monitor dam safety or prioritize program resources,” the report noted.

The B.C. government committed to improve dam safety after a massive tailings pond collapsed at Mount Polley in 2014, spilling 25 million cubic metres of pollutants into Quesnel Lake in B.C.’s Interior. The incident was blamed on a design flaw that was compounded when the dam was repeatedly raised.

Ugo Lapointe, Canada program co-ordinator with watchdog group MiningWatch Canada, said the report confirms that the province has relied too much on self-regulation by industry.

“Miniscule sanctions, pitiful fines and lack of timely legal prosecution all lead to a laissez-faire attitude and do not act as a real deterrent for dam owners,” he said. “If dam owners don’t fear the consequences of messing up and not complying with the law, why would they go all the way to do the right thing?”

The province has recorded an average of three structural dam failures each year over the past five years. In 2010, the Testalinden Dam failed, destroying or damaging five homes and blocking Highway 97 with debris.

Dam safety questions were raised again last year after an uncontrolled release of water through the spillway of the Cleveland dam swept away several people who were fishing downstream in the Capilano River canyon. Two people died, and human error was blamed for the incident.

In its response to the report, the ministry conceded that changes were needed, and promised to review its dam safety measures to strengthen accountability mechanisms. In a statement, the ministry said it will hire five additional dam safety staff in response to the Auditor-General’s recommendations.

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