03/11/2015 06:59 EDT | Updated 05/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Alberta's Dam Network Not Properly Regulated: Auditor General


EDMONTON - Alberta's environment minister says despite a scathing report from the auditor general on dam oversight, the province's barriers are safe.

Kyle Fawcett said dams identified as having potential for "very high" or "extreme" consequences are inspected annually.

"Albertans can feel confident that dams in their province are built, maintained and operated in a manner that is aligned with national and international standards," Fawcett told reporters Wednesday.

"(But) we do agree with the auditor general that we must improve the transparency through more effective record keeping and reporting."

Auditor General Merwan Saher, in a new report, stated the province is failing to properly regulate its network of dams and, in fact, doesn't even know how many dams it has.

"We found that critical elements of a well-functioning regulator are either not being performed or evidence is lacking that processes are being carried out as intended," said Saher in the report.

There are an estimated 1,500 dams in Alberta varying in size, including tailings dams used in the mining industry.

Saher said the province has particularly fallen down when it comes to monitoring coal mine tailings ponds. He said most of the ponds have not been inspected since the 1980s or 1990s and that the department did not have on file any of the safety reviews for those 22 structures.

He noted the dam that was breached at the Obed Mountain Mine site in 2013 was not even registered as a dam even though it met the requirements.

About 670 million litres of waste spilled into the Athabasca River from that spill.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley called that nothing short of "negligence."

"The Obed mine was the second biggest coal spill in the history of this country," said Notley.

"It seriously contaminated the Athabasca River and forced a number of major communities to stop drawing water from it.

"And to discover that the dam it breached had never been inspected by an official of this government? Somebody needs to be fired."

Saher also said the department could not produce a current, comprehensive and consolidated listing of all dams, and that location information for 84 dams and consequence classifications for 956 dams was missing.

He noted that the province has a small staff of dam regulators that are "pulled in many directions" and that making much-needed improvements in the process is detracting from day-to-day responsibilities.

In other areas, Saher called on the province to improve its flood risk assessments, and complete up-to-date maps on flood hazard areas.

He said the province must continue to build on the work it has done to protect Albertans since a massive flood in southern Alberta in 2013 killed five people and displaced 100,000.

"This sense of urgency needs to continue," he said.

Saher also called on the province to fix chronic absenteeism in the Northland School Division, Alberta's only primarily aboriginal school jurisdiction.

He said one third of the 2,700 students are regularly absent, and that the figure is accepted by the district as the "status quo."