Manitoba

'We need to be informed': Automation at Grand Rapids dam worries residents

Those living at the foot of the Grand Rapids generating station are expressing concerns over Manitoba Hydro’s plan to automate the facility, a move that will leave the 40-metre-high dam unmanned for more than 12 hours every night.

Plan would leave dam unmanned for more than 12 hours a day

Residents of the Town of Grand Rapids and Misipawistik Cree First Nation are worried about Manitoba Hydro's plan to automate the Grand Rapids generating station, leaving the dam unmanned overnight. (Submitted by Dion Dick)

People living at the foot of the Grand Rapids generating station are expressing concerns over Manitoba Hydro's plan to automate the facility, a move that will leave the 40-metre-high dam unmanned for more than 12 hours every night.

That's an issue for Dion Dick, who lives just 500 metres from the dam on Misipawistik Cree First Nation.

"If nobody is there and that person can't reach there in time to find out where exactly a breach is and he can't make it in time — we're going to be washed away," Dick told CBC News over the phone from the community, about 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

"That dam is less than a kilometre away from our settlement, and it's facing right towards our reserve where our people live … if that dam breaches we're basically going to be gone in 10 or 15 minutes."

Located on the Saskatchewan River, about 145 km southeast of The Pas, the dam was built in 1968 and is the first hydroelectric generating station Manitoba Hydro built in Northern Manitoba.

About 1,500 people live in Misipawistik Cree First Nation and Town of Grand Rapids, both located just metres from the 479 megawatt generating station.

'We need to be informed'

Grand Rapids mayor Robert Buck says officials from Manitoba Hydro attended a community meeting in March to discuss the planned changes, but failed to address safety concerns.

"They asked Hydro questions, and Hydro couldn't answer those questions adequately at the time and said they would write a report," said Buck, who adds he's yet to see that report.

"We need to be informed of what's going on, the way things are going now, by the time they're finished their reports … they'll be built already and we still wouldn't know what's going on."

People in the communities say they have reason to question the decision to leave the dam unattended at night.

In 1992 a turbine cap failed at the dam and part of the facility was flooded with rushing river water. An operator working at the facility that night was able to quickly shut down the affected unit and avert disaster.

Now, 27 years later, Dick worries what will happen if something happens to the now 51-year-old dam and no one is there.

"My grandma and my grandpa always said that that dam will not last forever," he said.

Automation nothing new: Hydro

A Manitoba Hydro spokesperson says automation of hydro-electric facilities is nothing new.

In an email Bruce Owen said many generating stations across North America already run on a full-time or part-time basis, including several in Manitoba.

"In case of Grand Rapids, it's important to know that Manitoba Hydro staff continues to be located at the site, even in off-hours, living in the on-site staff house located less than a kilometre away from the station itself," said Owen.

"These are the same people who staff the station during the day. Their response time to any emergency is measured in a few minutes."

Manitoba Hydro says while the Grand Rapids generating station will be run through automation through the overnight, staff will be be located at the site, even in off-hours, living in the on-site staff house located less than a kilometre away from the station. (Submitted by Dion Dick)

Owen said an automated system, using off-site monitoring and remote control systems, would respond as quickly as an on-site operator to an emergency situation like the dam saw in 1992.

"Automated systems are designed to "fail safe" to exactly that kind of incident, among others," he wrote.

Grand Rapids resident Heidi Cook says that's not good enough.

"There's no other hydro dam in Manitoba where people live directly in the path of all this water," she said.

"Other dams that are automated don't have the degree of safety risk that we have here."

Access to sacred sites

Cook says it's not just the automation that's got community members upset. There's also concerns new fencing built around the dam will cut off access to sacred Indigenous sites.

"I don't agree with having to ask Hydro for permission to open a gate for me to go and honour my ancestors," she said. 

"We've lived with Hydro for the last fifty-plus years, and I think Hydro has a lot further to go in being a good neighbour."

Owen says the concerns raised by the community around the dam have been reviewed, and the crown corporation is working with the community to make sure access to sacred sites is maintained without compromising security or safety.

The Grand Rapids generating station was built in 1968 and the first hydroelectric generating station Manitoba Hydro built in Northern Manitoba. (Manitoba Hydro)

He says another meeting with the community is set for next week to follow up on their concerns.

In the meantime Grand Rapids' mayor is calling on Hydro to slow down their plans.

"To this point and date we haven't been informed," said Buck.

"We're simply asking that they suspend their work for a little while until the town is assured of what is going on."

With files from Erin Brohman