North

Plans for cooling system under Ross River school put on ice

The Yukon government issued a tender for a refrigeration unit and insulation in the school's crawl space, to attempt to refreeze the thawing permafrost under the building. There was only one bid, and the government says it's too expensive.

Yukon government attempting to deal with thawing permafrost under the building

The school in Ross River opened in 2000, and began experiencing foundation problems a year later, as the permafrost thawed. (CBC)

The Yukon government is reconsidering its plans to install a cooling system underneath the Ross River school.

The department of Public Works had issued a tender for a refrigeration unit and insulation in the school's crawl space, to attempt to refreeze the thawing permafrost under the building.

But the only bid on that tender was too rich, the government says. 

The school opened in 2000, but began experiencing foundation problems a year later, as the permafrost thawed.

The government had slated $1.4 million for the cooling system and other repairs. 

However, only one company — B.C.-based Wildstone Construction and Engineering Ltd. — submitting a bid to do the work, for $1.6 million dollars.

"The tender is... much higher than was budgeted. Because of this, we now need to consider how to proceed," said department spokesperson Oshea Jephson, in an email to CBC.

The department says one option is to simply not do the work at all.

These concrete pillars were repaired in 2015. The school in Ross River has had problems for years, due in part to its supports sinking into the permafrost. (Yukon government)

The department also has plans to stabilize the structure by adding braces — part of a long term plan to repair the school —  but Jephson says "we are now looking at how to proceed with stabilization and cooling work."    

As for whether the community might receive a new school building altogether, Jephson's email says the government's "capital plan has identified money to maintain the existing school for the next five years."

'The school is falling apart'

Meanwhile, people in Ross River have been asking the First Nation what's happening with the school.

"We already know the school is falling apart," Robbie Dick, a councillor with the Ross River Dena Council, told CBC.

"On the outside, you can start to see visible changes within the school, there's cracks all over the place. You know, there's definitely concerns among the Ross River members, and they're asking us questions like, what are we going to do about it?"  

The government has maintained that the school is safe, but Dick says people in the community remain uneasy. 

'You know, there's definitely concerns among the Ross River members,' said Robbie Dick, a councillor with the Ross River Dena Council. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

"They basically want to have a safe space for their kids, and to have somewhere where they don't have to worry about the school falling apart." 

Engineering firm David Nairne + Associates has been monitoring conditions at the school.

The last site visit was in February, and a subsequent report found that the school was structurally safe, but needed work.

"We note that the foundation movements occurring at the Ross River school to date are significant, and will lead to serious non-structural and structural damage if no remediation work is carried out to address the degradation of the permafrost," the report said.

Dick doubts that a cooling and refrigeration system will solve anything. He says that permafrost underneath the building has already thawed, and there's no bringing it back.

"It's like putting an old Band-aid over something that's already deteriorating — like, what good is that going to be?" 

Dick says the entire community of Ross River is on built on unstable ground, and a rapidly changing climate is accelerating the problem.

"There's permafrost everywhere. And with climate change, I don't think the situation is going to get any better because of the constant shifting." 

The community's MLA, opposition leader Stacey Hassard, urges the government ministers to speak with the community about a long term solution for the school.

"You know, they campaigned on how every community matters and 'evidence-based decision making,' — why is this government not in the community of Ross River, talking to the citizens to determine what they think is the best solution, what's the next step, what's the best path forward?" Hassard asked. 

Hassard says the government promised it would deliver accurate budgeting for capital projects, and that the unawarded tender represents a failure to do that.

He says pouring more money into the troubled building is not a long term solution for the community. 

About the Author

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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