Nfld. & Labrador

Taxpayers could be on the hook for $10M repair bill after water bomber hits rock

A mishap during a forest fire last September could cost the province millions — and going through insurance is not an option.

Insurance deductible took a major hit after plane crash in 2013

The province is down to four planes to help fight fires. (Submitted by Bruce Mactavish)

A mishap while fighting a forest fire last September could cost Newfoundland and Labrador millions of dollars — and going through insurance is not an option.

Transportation Minister Steve Crocker told reporters on Wednesday that fixing the broken water bomber will cost about $10 million, after it struck a rock while fighting a fire on the Burin Peninsula.

"One of the challenges we face with this is that there are no off-the-shelf parts," he said. "So most every part that would need to be replaced would have to be actually manufactured for the aircraft."

When asked if the repairs would be covered by insurance, Crocker said no.

"In this instance, the deductible is $10 million."

Steve Crocker says the damage to a water bomber will exceed $8 million US, or about $10.5 million Cdn. (CBC)

Premier Dwight Ball would not say whether the water bomber — damaged more than eight months ago — would be repaired for the multimillion-dollar price tag when asked if the province would pay the bill.

"[Transportation and Works is] going to analyze and work through this to see what is required here," Ball said.

Labador West MHA Jordan Brown said he hopes the province will put up the cash, for the sake of safety.

"It should be more [about] protecting people's lives than the cost to the province," he said.

"Look at my region, for example. We're surrounded by forest. We came close multiple times to serious incidents with forest fires in our region.… It does put people's lives in danger. Water bomber service is a necessity."

Doors on underside of plane damaged

According to Transport Canada, the water bomber was damaged Sept. 15, 2018, while fighting a fire near Whitehead Pond on the Burin Peninsula. 

The crew "inspected several lakes" before selecting Whitehead Pond for collecting water.

"While making the sixth water scoop run along the lake, the flight crew heard a loud bang," the report reads. "The flight crew suspected that they had struck hidden rocks."

A water bomber swoops into the water near Ming's Bight to help douse a dump fire. (Courtesy of Graham Bowers)

The water drop doors were stuck open, so the plane returned to Gander Airport.

The crew made several attempts to close the doors while in the air, but couldn't get them to shut. It landed in Gander without any further trouble.

Previous crash ramped up insurance costs

The province lost a water bomber completely in 2013 when it crashed into Moosehead Lake in Labrador. Crocker said that crash had a major impact on the province's insurance for its water bombers.

The fleet of CL-415 aircraft were made by Bombardier and purchased by the province for about $40 million each. After the crash in 2013 and the most recent incident, the province is down to four planes.

Crocker said the provincial government will keep an eye on the fire index and rotate the planes around to areas where the need is highest.

"We have very strong capacity with the 415s in this province. Actually, some of the best square-kilometre coverage you will find anywhere in the country," Crocker said. "We were quite confident working with the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources that we can certainly cover off the requirements."

A Newfoundland and Labrador government water bomber came with a price tag of $40 million each. (Submitted by Bruce Mactavish)

Bombardier sold the rights to the planes in 2016 to Viking Air. The government is waiting on Viking Air to provide an assessment on the repairs, but it's expected the damaged plane will be out of commission for 18 to 24 months.

Brown raised the issue during question period at the House of Assembly on Wednesday. He said he'd heard rumblings about the incident before, but it was confirmed during budget talks.

It came as a surprise to members of the media, but Crocker insists the details of the crash and the costs were well-known.

"This has been known for quite some time," he said. "This is something that's not new to anybody."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story indicated that province was moving ahead with the repairs. The premier said a decision had not yet been made whether to move forward with the $10M repair cost.
    Jun 26, 2019 4:12 PM NT

With files from Katie Breen and Anthony Germain

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