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Chisasibi looks to Hydro-Québec for reassurance in wake of dam breach scare

Hydro-Québec says more information is needed to reassure Chisasibi residents after a rumour that a nearby dam had been breached in September caused panic in the community.

Hydro-Québec says full-scale evacuation drill a long way off after dam breach hoax

Residents flee Chisasibi in their cars on Sept. 1 after the dam breach scare. The rumour was later revealed to have been a hoax. (Submitted by Mona Coonishish)

In the wake of a hoax about a dam breach last month, Quebec's public utility, Hydro-Québec, says there are still many steps to take before moving to a full-scale evacuation drill in the Cree community of Chisasibi.

On Sept. 1, Chisasibi spun into a panic because someone spread a false rumour that a nearby dam broke, making residents believe they were in danger and needed to evacuate the area.

Several residents have identified an evacuation drill as something that would reassure them.

"Doing a full-scale drill is one of the last steps," said Luc Duquette, Hydro-Québec's Indigenous relations and projects adviser.

Communication needs to be practiced, and more information needs to be given to residents, he said.

Chisasibi is one of the largest Cree communities in Quebec, with a population of nearly 5,000 people. It is located approximately 1,400 kilometres north of Montreal.

The community is downstream from Hydro-Québec's La Grande complex of dams, which generate 50 per cent of the electric power produced in Quebec.

Public utility investigating

Hydro-Québec is doing an internal investigation into the hoax in Chisasibi and what it can learn from the incident.

"Both [the] Cree Nation of Chisasibi and Hydro-Québec​ agree there is a big need for communication, information and education on dam surveillance, dam safety and emergency preparedness," said Duquette.

Dams in La Grande complex are as strong as the Egyptian pyramids,- Joseph  Warde , Hydro- Québec

Joseph Warde, project manager for the department of dams and infrastructure at Hydro-Québec, said the first priority is to make sure residents have more information about how the dams are built and monitored.

Warde said Hydro-Québec must, by law, monitor and inspect its facilities on a "daily, weekly and yearly basis," adding engineers watch water levels, dam performance and weather conditions closely.

"Dams in La Grande complex are as strong as the Egyptian pyramids," said Warde.

La Grande-2 dam, upstream from Chisasibi, Que. Residents have expressed concerns about vegetation growing on the dam. (Margaret Fireman)

Construction on the La Grande complex started in the 1970s and ended in 1986, making them young in comparison to other dams operated by Hydro-Québec​, said Warde.

Warde said 95 per cent of the dams built in the La Grande complex are earth-and-rock-filled dams, which he said "get stronger" as they get older and the materials settle.

"They are here to last forever, as long as we need them. Plus, they are managed and maintained," said Warde, adding La Grande is the utility's most valuable asset and a "vital" part of how it meets the entire province's energy needs.

One of the things residents have expressed concerns about is vegetation growing on the side of La Grande dams. Warde said that is normal, and the utility has a yearly program to remove vegetation.

"It has no effect whatsoever on safety," said Warde.

'High ground'

Since 2004, Hydro-Québec has assisted the community with its emergency preparedness plan.

In 2014, the utility constructed what is referred to locally as "high ground," an evacuation site located about nine kilometres outside the community.

Several hundred residents fled the community on Sept. 1 to this evacuation site, known as 'high ground,' before they received the all-clear to come back to Chisasibi. (Maamuitaau/CBC)

Part of the panic that struck Chisasibi residents in early September was the result of misinformation about how long it would take for water to make its way downstream, toward the community, in the event the dam broke.

Residents were convinced they had mere moments until the community would be swept away into James Bay.

In the "highly unlikely" event of a breach, residents would have "several hours or days" to evacuate, Warde said.

Hydro-Québec said further consultations with the community are planned for this fall.

- With files from Chirstopher Herodier