Flood protection delayed by deficient reports, lack of leadership: Calgary expert
Report into proposed Springbank reservoir was completed last spring, but has just been made public
A Calgary lawyer who specializes in regulatory reviews of massive private-sector projects says the proposed Springbank Reservoir — a dry dam that could help protect Calgary from future floods — has been delayed in part by a lack of leadership, poor decision making and staff turnover.
In his report, Martin Ignasiak said engineering and consulting firm Stantec advised Alberta Transportation — the proponent of the $432-million reservoir — not to submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to federal regulators, warning that it was incomplete and would be rejected.
Ignasiak says external legal counsel also weighed in and advised the assessment should not be filed.
"I am not aware of who made the decision to file the EIS despite these warnings, or why," wrote Ignasiak.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) received the EIS, declared it "deficient" and responded with 593 requests for more information.
Ignasiak — who has extensive experience in obtaining regulatory approvals for large-scale industrial projects, including oilsands facilities, pipelines and coal mines — said the number of requests for information was "unprecedented" for a major project and likely delayed the review process of the reservoir by at least six months.
But Ignasiak points out proponent Alberta Transportation is not accustomed to complex regulatory reviews.
"I think that what you have to understand is Alberta Transportation, its bread and butter is highway work, overpasses, and things like that, that don't attract the type of regulatory processes you engage when you propose something like the Springbank reservoir.," he said.
"It was important to emphasize that this was from Alberta Transportation's perspective, certainly a unique type of project."
Previous government 'struggled' with the project
The province's transportation minister says the report shows the previous NDP government had a tough time with the project.
"I interpret [Ignasiak's] findings that during the time the NDP was in charge of the file, that they were struggling with it," said Ric McIver.
He says the UCP government, elected in April, 2019, is moving forward with it.
"Since we've been here, we've tried to take the bull by the horns."
"We've put some responsible senior people in transportation in charge of the file, who I think have been doing a great job."
'Not really inclined to point fingers'
The Calgary River Communities Action Group — a flood mitigation group formed after the devastating June 2013 floods in southern Alberta — says the report that looked into the reservoir's approval process so far, also reveals the complexity of the nearly half-billion dollar project.
"Any project of this sort of size is going to take time to prosecute, to study, to understand, to make decisions around to get the right information in place," said spokesperson Tony Morris.
He says there's been more consistent leadership behind the project in the past two to three years, and that the group is reluctant to lay blame.
"We're not really inclined to point fingers and be upset at the past. We just want to get to the outcomes that we know are necessary and everybody is behind at this time," Morris said.
Rocky View County drops opposition
While Rocky View County announced this week it no longer opposes the Springbank reservoir and the Tsuut'ina First Nation did the same last month, not everybody supports it.
The Springbank Community Association believes the reservoir will put the communities of Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows at risk.
It's preparing to fight the project at future public hearings.
The group believes the reservoir and diversion channel will cause harm to the Elbow River ecosystem. It has long advocated for the McLean Creek dam project to be built instead to protect Calgary and other communities.
"Someone has to hold the government accountable. Someone has to hold the process up to the light to say what went wrong in the early days, when Springbank reservoir was chosen in a panic," said Karin Hunter, president of the Springbank Community Association. "And if it's not us, who is it going to be?"
Ignasiak has suggested a timeline that includes a three-week public hearing that could be held in December, followed by decisions from provincial and federal regulators by mid-2021.
He says it's the nature of the regulatory process in Canada right now — even for a project that's being proposed by government.
"The regulatory processes we have are extremely difficult and Springbank reservoir clearly demonstrates that you have a project which is intended to prevent another catastrophic disaster and despite that, it still takes a significant amount of time and effort to get through the regulatory process."
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.