What would happen if one of the dams busted? It’s a mind-boggling thought. Hydro-Quebec says there’s almost no chance it could happen. But that’s why we have emergency plans. Just in case.
In the summer of 1996, the world watched as dams in the Saguenay region gave way in a wild storm, flooding dozens of cities and forcing 15,000 people to evacuate. In Chisasibi, people were especially worried. Many started asking the band administration what would happen if LG-2, the biggest dam in the world, ruptured 99 km up the river.
Charles Bobbish, then chief, didn’t have answers. “What are we supposed to do? I didn’t know what to say,” he said at the time. “That information still has to reach my desk.”
Bobbish and other Cree officials described Hydro-Quebec as an impenetrable fortress: it jealously guards its emergency plans and all other dam-safety information.
Now, for the first time, Hydro-Quebec has released emergency planning documents for the La Grande dams to the public. The Nation first requested the files back in July 1997 under the action-to-information law. Access requests are normally supposed to be answered within 20 days under the law. In our case, Hydro-Quebec released the studies only after a year and a half – after we appealed to the Access to Information Commission.
Hydro eventually released two boxes of heavily censored disaster studies for the dams in James Bay. The studies offer a frightening picture of what various dam disasters could look like. They include maps that show Chisasibi, Eastmain and Kuujjuaq all being flooded, depending on which dams burst.
The most nightmarish study is Hydro-Que-bec’s simulation called “Breach in Cascade.” This freakish scenario starts with a dam breach at LG-4, and ends with the destruction of all the dams down-river. Chisasibi would be flooded 17 hours and 52 minutes after LG-4 ruptures (see pp. 14 and 15).
Chisasibi’s 3,500 residents would be only slightly better off if just LG-2 busts (see map on cover). A monstrous tidal wave would cut off the road 10 km east of town 1 hour and 55 minutes after LG-2 gives out. There are two hills about 2 km east of town that would stay dry. But Chisasibi would be flooded 2 hours
and 14 minutes after the dam breach.
Five of the studies were written between 1987 and 1993, with a sixth study, an update, written in 1998. None have ever been released to the Cree or Inuit communities downriver.
Margaret Fireman, former deputy chief of Chisasibi, sits on a newly formed committee that is meeting with Hydro-Quebec on emergency planning and other issues. Fireman said Hydro has only now started talking to the Crees for the first since the dams were built in the 1970s. “There was no plan in place,” Fireman said. “Heaven forbid if anything happens. We have to have the right information.”
Other Cree and Inuit communities downriver from the dams say they haven’t heard a word from Hydro about emergency planning.
“We haven’t had any contacts regarding safety,” said Henry Moses, public-safety officer in Eastmain since 1984.
Half-way between Chisasibi and Eastmain along the James Bay coast lies Wemindji. This Cree community could also face flooding if a tidal wave floods into James Bay because part
of Wemindji is actually below sea level. Hydro has no disaster study for the community.
“There’s no emergency plan for our area,” said Tom Wadden, Wemindji’s treasurer. “I guess people don’t worry about things until they happen. But it seems it would be good if there was some kind of plan, just in case.”
Far to the north, on Ungava Bay, Kuujjuaq would find itself under 20 metres of water if Hydro’s dam on the Caniapiscau River busted. Michael Gordon, mayor of the Inuit town, said communication with Hydro-Quebec is virtually non-existent on emergency and many other important issues. “No, I have not seen emergency plans,” he said. “That’d be good information to have.”
Officials in all the downriver communities asked us for copies of the studies we got.
Other utilities more open
H-Q says its emergency plans are kept secret for security reasons. Also, the plans could cause a panic. “They’re not made public to Mr. Everybody,” said Gérard Verzeni, Hydro’s dam-security director.
“There is no question even for a band council to get a copy because it would cause a panic,” said Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Sylvie Tremblay. “Panic is often more dangerous than the event itself.”
Hydro’s policy is unusual compared to other North American utilities. We called three other large utilities and found all of them release their emergency plans to the public.
It took us just four days to get an emergency plan from B.C. Hydro, which sent the plan by courier at its own expense. The Tennessee Valley Authority also sent one of its plans; the New York Power Authority sent a letter confirming its plans are public.
B.C. Hydro’s disaster preparedness coordinator, G.D. (Doug) McLeod, said the utility circulates 2,500 copies of its emergency plans to the public so everyone’s ready for the worst. The plans are available in public libraries, police stations, firehalls and city halls. McLeod said B.C. Hydro regularly runs disaster drills that involve emergency authorities and down-river populations.
McLeod said the utility overhauled its planning after an earthquake showed it was unprepared for disasters several years ago. “It was the result of experience,” he said.
In Quebec, after the 1996 Saguenay disaster, a provincial inquiry also recommended that emergency plans be made public. Hydro-Quebec hasn’t adopted the suggestion.
H-Q’s emergency studies don’t look anything like the emergency plans of other North American utilities, either. Other utilities’ plans give evacuation routes, emergency numbers, information on warning systems and much more. Hydro’s studies give none of this; they consist solely of flood maps and computer-simulation data for disaster scenarios.
Does Hydro-Quebec have complete emergency plans for the dams, like other utilities? After a year and a half, we still don’t know. When The Nation first requested Hydro’s emergency plans under the access law, H-Q initially refused to send us anything. Eventually, Hydro gave in and released three heavily censored disaster-simulation studies.
In fact, as we later learned. Hydro had at least six studies, but only told us about three. Why did Hydro not reveal the existence of all six studies? There was no clear answer. A Hydro lawyer, Lucie Lalonde, claimed the studies were temporarily lost in a move.
But Hydro spokeswoman Sylvie Tremblay disputed this explanation: “It’s not supposed to be lost. It’s impossible. We have a documentation centre (where the files are kept).”
Tremblay claimed Hydro does in fact have complete emergency plans, even though they were never disclosed to us in response to our access requests. Concealing the existence of requested documents is a violation of the access law. Tremblay couldn’t explain why Hydro didn’t identify these emergency plans in response to our access requests. She did say, however, that Hydro still won’t release them.