Forest Practices Board report due soon on Balfour slide
A Forest Practices Board report due out in the next few weeks will consider whether human error was a factor in a landslide near Balfour nearly two years ago.
The May 2011 slide deposited about 2,000 cubic meters of mud, gravel, rock, and trees into Laird Creek, making the water undrinkable, according to John Beerbower, who is among the complainants. Over 100 people who draw water from the creek relied on bottled water for a few months following the slide and again last spring after erosion from the slide deposited sediment into the creek.
The slide came a few years after BC Timber Sales extended a road into the Laird Creek drainage to harvest pine beetle-infested timber, despite concerns from water users about instability and drainage. Residents also felt they weren’t given enough time to review the plans before the roadwork was tendered, so they complained to the Forest Practices Board.
The board concluded BC Timber Sales met or exceeded its obligations, but suggested a drainage plan be incorporated, which was done. Harvesting of a lower block began in 2005 and work on an upper block followed in 2007 once the road was completed.
The slide four years later occurred below the road, in an area identified as unstable by both water users and some professionals, according to Beerbower, who is not a water user but has been involved with planning for the West Arm demonstration forest, in which Laird Creek lies.
The same consultant that provided the drainage plan concluded a combination of natural and human factors were to blame, including high snowpack and upslope harvesting — but the slide’s primary cause was how the road diverted and concentrated water.
For its part, BC Timber Sales told water users while it was disappointed with what happened, it relied on professional advice, and “we have not found conclusively where a change in the designs of the roads or [cutblock] could have prevented the slide.”
Further, the crown corporation said its quick response and support to water users by providing bottled water and cleaning out intakes was evidence of its concern. It also stated: “We recognize that many water users do not wish to subject watersheds to any degree of risk, thus entirely precluding forest development activity.”
Soon after, residents filed another complaint with the Forest Practices Board, asking them to investigate whether flaws in planning and development contributed to the slide, whether the professionals showed enough diligence, and whether BC Timber Sales’ reliance on those professionals worked as intended.
They also wanted to know if the earlier Forest Practices Board investigation was thorough enough, whether the slide assessment was free of bias, and whether BC Timber Sales’ corporate culture contributed to the slide.
Beerbower says a draft report he reviewed last year fell well short of answering those questions. “The report appeared to us to be mostly BC Timber Sales talking points and failed to address the key issues which we raised in our complaint,” he says. However, following a detailed rebuttal, he expects the final version to “substantially differ” from the draft, though he thinks some of his concerns will be “challenging” for the board.
“I don’t expect them to render a judgement on professional due diligence, but I’m hopeful that they will refer the question to the two professional associations,” he says. “I will be surprised if they speak to the corporate structure/culture of BC Timber Sales.”
Beerbower is also unsure whether the report will address the earlier investigation.
Meanwhile, BC Timber Sales has decommissioned the road upslope of the unstable area to reduce the risk of further landslides or erosion, according to manager Shane Bowden.
“That entailed pulling the culverts, re-establishing natural drainage patterns, and recontouring the road,” he says. In addition, the work last fall saw the slide channel seeded with grass to stabilize the exposed soil and traps built to keep sediment from reaching Laird Creek during spring freshet.
“Our interest is to minimize the potential for another slide,” Bowden says. “It doesn’t give an absolute guarantee, but it’s an effort toward lowering that risk to as low as possible. We’re confident that should be effective.”
Beerbower agrees the road recontouring should resolve issues around diversion and concentration of water, a primary factor in the landside, but expects erosion to remain an annual problem affecting water quality.
The Forest Practices Board, the province’s independent forestry watchdog, says the report is in its semi-final form and expected to be released within two weeks.