‘Serious errors’ by B.C. prison officials who knew about a 4-year water leak: report

'Serious errors' by B.C. prison officials who knew about a 4-year water leak: report
The Matsqui Institution, a medium-security federal men's prison, is seen in Abbotsford, B.C., on October 26, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The federal Public Sector Integrity Commissioner says the Correctional Service of Canada committed “gross mismanagement” when it took nearly four years to fix pipes at a B.C. prison that were leaking chemically treated water into the ground.

Harriet Solloway says millions of litres of water from the building’s heating system seeped into the ground surrounding the Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford, B.C., which is on top of three aquifers, including one that flows into a salmon-bearing stream.

“In reviewing the evidence, it becomes clear that CSC management did not undertake adequate and timely remedial action, demonstrating serious errors impacting safety and potentially harming the environment — not reflecting responsible stewardship of government funds and assets,” Solloway concluded in her report issued this week.

The central water system’s main purpose is to supply hot water for domestic use and heat the three institutions that are part of the Matsqui Complex, which houses more than 1,000 inmates.

Solloway’s report says an engineer first noticed problems with the system, which requires the addition of anti-corrosion chemicals to boiling water, in August 2017 and warned officials about “a substantial leak.”

They were told that the best way to fix the leak is to dig up the system, which is about one and a half metres underground.

Excavation of the area began the next month but had to stop because of the frozen winter ground.

Almost a year later, in July 2018, the engineer sent an email to management noting, “this leak needs to be addressed” and that by the end of the month, approximately 1.1 million litres of chemically treated hot water would have seeped into the ground.

Solloway’s report says the department tried unsuccessfully in 2018 to locate the leak using a procedure involving high-water pressure and a vacuum to remove soil.

“The engineer continued to raise the alarm throughout 2020 and 2021, but he was ignored,” the report says.

Solloway says management didn’t believe the leak was worsening, despite their lack of engineering expertise, with some managers suggesting the monitoring equipment was not “scientific enough.”

“These assertions were made by managers who did not possess engineering expertise to make such determinations,” the report says.

The report says cost, and the possibility that the system was going to be replaced, may be two reasons for the inaction.

“Finally, on April 29, 2021, excavation of the entire pipe system was undertaken, nearly four years after an engineer’s recommendation. As a result, multiple leaks were eventually found. By that time, according to CSC engineering personnel, millions of litres of chemically treated hot water had seeped into the ground,” the report says.

Solloway made four recommendations in her report, including that the department establish an “action plan” for critical infrastructure risks and failures, that maintenance plans are up to date and that there be an environmental impact assessment.

In a response included with the report, the Correctional Service of Canada says it disagrees that it committed wrongdoing, noting that an independent report in 2022 found there was no contamination from the “highly diluted rust inhibitors” leaking from the pipes.

It says reports in 2020 and 2021 “deemed the risks to be negligible.”

By Ashley Joannou.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2024.

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