British Columbia

Rio Tinto Alcan water license needs to change, says Vanderhoof mayor after almost $1M in flood damage

Vanderhoof's mayor wants B.C. premier Christy Clark to step in and protect his town from future flooding, after a 40-day flood caused almost $1M in damage to homes, farms and parks earlier this year.

Water spilled from Rio Tinto Alcan Reservoir reservoir flows through — and sometimes floods — Vanderhoof

Sandbagging didn't stop flood waters in Vanderhoof from damaging 20 homes as well as farms, parks, and trails and causing more than a million dollars damage in June, 2015. (Audrey McKinnon/CBC)

The mayor of Vanderhoof wants B.C. premier Christy Clark to step in and protect his town from future flooding, after 40 days of flooding caused almost $1 million in damage to homes, farms and parks earlier this year.

Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen — along with the Cheslatta Carrier First Nation, who saw human remains from their cemetery wash ashore in the flood — blame mining company Rio Tinto Alcan for the damage, saying the company released too much water into the Nechako River from its reservoir upstream.

Thiessen says his community has no say over how much water Rio Tinto Alcan "spills" from its Kenney Dam reservoir. "None. Not only having no control, but not having answers when you see your house being flooded.".

Insurance companies won't pay for the flood damage, said Thiessen, and the B.C. government has also denied the district municipality's request for disaster assistance.

"We've been turned down," he said. "There was no explanation. There's been a lot of costs to our community."

Thiessen plans to ask Clark for answers at a meeting Wednesday, and also wants the B.C. government to rewrite Rio Tinto Alcan's water license, to address flooding fears.

Rio Tinto Alcan's water licence does not require the company to consult with downstream communities or mitigate flood risk, according to a statement from B.C.'s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

"The ministry is aware that Rio Tinto Alcan communicates frequently with downstream communities and emergency response officials during periods of flood risk, and where possible manages releases from the Nechako Reservoir to minimize downstream impacts," the statement read.

Residents worried

Vanderhoof dentist Paul Collard, who says  his basement was flooded for 40 days, also wants to see changes to the water license.

"We suffered damage and no one is responsible. Rio Tinto Alcan [has] no responsibility to life or property or damage downstream. That water licence is not sacrosanct. It can be opened up and renegotiated."

Collard is worried about more flooding, if the reservoir fills to the brim.

"If we had a really high snowpack, and a very warm and wet spring, there could be absolutely huge volumes of water ... released from behind the dam to protect the integrity of the dam. You could get huge flood damage in Vanderhoof, Prince George."

'We don't take responsibility'

Rio Tinto Alcan does not take responsibility for the 2015 flooding and is not considering compensation, said Kevin Dobbin, the company's manager of external relations in Kitimat.

Much of the damage is in Vanderhoof's flood plain, and other rivers also flow into the Nechako and can contribute to flooding, he said.

"We're not the only factor for the flooding. Certainly people looked at us that way, due to the spillway. [But] we don't take responsibility, because of the challenge of predicting the weather and climate change and what happens in the river."

Dobbin said potential flooding is just one of many factors the company has to consider, as releasing water from its reservoir also affects river temperatures, fish habitat, electricity production for the smelter, and the safety of the dam.

"We can never guarantee there will be no flood," said Dobbin, who said the company monitors many factors including weather and water levels weekly.

"We can do a better job at informing people on how we do reservoir management, keeping people informed."

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