British Columbia

Investigation into early mudslide tip launched

B.C.'s deputy minister for public safety will investigate a report that authorities were warned on Friday about the dangerous conditions that led to the mudslide in Oliver on Sunday.
B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike de Jong toured the area hit by a massive wall of mud and water, on Tuesday. ((CBC))

B.C.'s deputy minister for public safety will investigate a report that authorities were warned on Friday about the dangerous conditions that led to the mudslide in Oliver on Sunday.

Officials say the slide was caused by a man-made lake that burst through an earth dam on the mountainside. Five houses were demolished, two others were damaged and several farms were destroyed when the water washed a mass of  mud, trees and other debris into the valley below.

Officials with the town and regional district say the slide caught everyone by surprise, but Public Safety Minister Mike de Jong said there are reports someone may have warned officials about the danger.

"There may have been a call as early as Friday, from someone expressing concerns with what was taking place at the lake and the dam," said de Jong. "I want answers to that, too. What happened to that information? What kind of information was it? Was it properly acted upon?"

De Jong has asked David Morhart, deputy minister for public safety, to lead a full investigation.

"I've asked the deputy minister for public safety to immediately begin an investigation into all aspects of what's in place here, including how it happened, what kind of information was available, when it was available," said de Jong.

The report will be complete by mid-July, he said.

Responsibility for lake unclear

Another issue the report is expected to address is who was responsible for the lake where the slide is believed to have begun, and the maintenance of the dam that failed to hold it back.

Testlinden Lake, is located about 2.000 metres above the valley. Aerial images show the lake has been drained by a wide gap in the embankment that served as both a road and a dam.

Officials have blamed the mudslide on the failure of a irrigation reservoir's embankments. (CBC)

The lake was built in the 1930s as an irrigation reservoir for a local orchard and has changed hands a number of times since. It was sold 40 years ago, along with the water rights, to the federal government as part of a plan to build a giant telescope.

That plan, along with the road to the lake, was abandoned, and the present holder of the water rights is local rancher Ace Elkink.

He told CBC News that prior to the recent heavy rains, the reservoir had not had water in it for years.

"We've had a lot of rain in the last while," he said, "You've got them big rainstorms. Something happens."

Elkink said he is not worried about the liability, because the lake is on provincial Crown land, and many agencies and the public used the road across the dam. As well, many groups contributed to it's maintenance, he said.

"Everything we've done is proper and stuff," Elkink told CBC News.

Provincial officials see it differently, saying Elkink's company is responsible for the maintenance and inspection of the dam.

Insurance won't cover damage

Meanwhile, the Insurance Bureau of Canada says properties damaged by mudslides, snowslides and flooding are not covered by insurance.

The mudslide on Sunday left a field of debris up to several hundred metres wide across several Oliver-area farms. ((CBC))

Vice president Lindsay Olson said the industry simply doesn't offer coverage for so-called "earth movement" events.

"I'm afraid, from an insurance perspective, there's no insurance product out there that would do that job," Olson said. "It's very similar to flood situations, where that's not insurable either."

The B.C. government, however, is offering Disaster Financial Assistance to the victims of up to $300,000 per affected household or business, de Jong announced on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Highway 97, which was closed by the slide, was reopened on Tuesday evening, and many of the residents whose houses were not damaged have been allowed to return home.