What we examined

Responsibility for the structural integrity and safety of dams rests with the dam owner. The Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development is responsible for regulating the safety of dams, including dams the department owns. Regulatory activities don’t eliminate the risk of dam failure, but if processes are designed and operating effectively, that risk can be reduced—ideally, to an acceptable level. In the department, the Dam Safety group is responsible for regulating the safety of dams in Alberta.

Our audit was designed to determine whether the department has adequate systems to regulate dam safety in Alberta. Our approach included assessing whether important regulatory processes, such as monitoring, were in place and whether they were operating as intended. As part of our audit, we also focused additional attention on the dam safety regulatory processes applied to tailings ponds (considered dams based on regulatory definition) due to the nature of the structures and the contents that they store.

During the period of the audit, two significant events impacting dam safety occurred:

  • The failure of a dam storing tailings at Obed Mountain Mine occurred in October 2013. Because the incident at Obed constitutes a dam failure, it provided a relevant example for examining how the department’s regulatory processes performed.
  • Alberta experienced unprecedented flooding in the spring of 2013. The flooding raised concerns about potential damage and added strain on dams in the flood zone. We explored what role the department played, as dam regulator, in carrying out the necessary work to identify and monitor potential risks to the dams impacted.

What we found

The department does not have adequate systems to regulate dam safety in Alberta. A number of improvements to dam safety regulatory processes are needed. We found that critical elements of a wellfunctioning regulator are either not being performed or evidence is lacking that processes are being carried out as intended. This highlights the importance of a plan for dam safety outlining what needs to be done, who is doing it, what resources are required, and the implications of not carrying out certain activities. At present, the department is not completing foundational activities like a plan and the reporting of the results of regulatory activities.

The department’s senior executive is not receiving the necessary information to assert that dams in Alberta are being appropriately regulated. At the most basic level, reporting should allow important questions to be answered, such as: Has the department completed enough work and received enough information from dam owners to conclude on the safety of dams? Are changes needed to regulatory activities based on risks identified? Currently, no performance metrics, results analysis or identification of areas for future improvement are being prepared on dam safety in Alberta.

At the process level, the department lacks a requirement for Dam Safety to document its work. Dam Safety attends inspections and reviews information from dam owners; however, the nature, frequency and the quality of this work cannot be verified appropriately, either by supervisors or outside scrutiny, as documentary evidence is lacking. Appropriately evidencing work is not a “nice to have” or simply a matter of initialling a piece of paper. Evidence provides a foundation for important decisions and supports the quality of work performed, especially in the face of challenges or significant events.

While the department does have a registry for dams, its completeness, accuracy and sustainability is lacking. At present, the database is not updated appropriately, information is missing, and is not being used to its full potential. For example, it is capable of but is not used to track inspections and deficiencies.

Dam Safety’s regulatory activities are primarily influenced by the consequence ratings of dams determined by dam owners. If the consequence rating for a dam is not significant or very high, Dam Safety’s reporting requirements range from minimal to none. We found dams and coal mine tailing ponds where the consequence rating was outdated, increasing the risk that the appropriate level of monitoring is not always taking place.

We found that coal mine tailing ponds have not been appropriately monitored by Dam Safety. The majority of coal mine tailing ponds hadn’t been inspected by Dam Safety since the 1980s and 1990s. Our examination of the monitoring of Obed Mountain Mine identified that the main tailings pond was inspected by Dam Safety in 2013, but the structure that failed on the mine site was not monitored by Dam Safety even though it appears to meet the definition of a dam.

Why this is important to Albertans

Dams can pose a significant risk to those living downstream as well as to the environment and economy if they are not maintained and operated correctly. Dams can fail or malfunction, resulting in release of water and any other substances in the water. Although dam failures are infrequent, the impacts can be catastrophic, often far exceeding typical river flood events.

All forms of mining, whether it is coal, oil, uranium, potash or gold, produce tailings. Coal and bituminous sand are the principal outputs of mines in Alberta. Nearly half of Canada’s coal production is mined in the province. Tailing pond dams can have a significant impact on the environment, the wildlife and water quality. In just the last couple of years, two tailings ponds in Canada have breached.

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