The City of Port Alberni will be consulting with central Vancouver Island’s medical health officer to determine if the McLean Mill National Historic Site will be able to stay open.
The city has received a stage one environmental assessment report for McLean Mill, which recommends further testing be conducted on 19 locations on the site. Two locations, the gas and oil shed and the mill pond, are recommended as “high priorities,” at a cost of $55,513 for an assessment. A full assessment of all 19 locations will cost $250,000.
This report comes after a mishap in September 2018, where the water quality in Kitsuksis Creek was threatened after a release of water from the mill’s log pond. In 2014, the city undertook some work to repair the dam at the McLean Mill log pond, diverting the stream away from the pond, but more remedial work was still left to be done. The water quality issue arose in September when volunteers from the Alberni Valley Enhancement Society attempted to undertake some of this work.
Approximately $200,000 was allocated from the city’s contingency budget in 2018 for dam repairs, water and soil quality testing and remediation work, if required. An additional $233,000 was added from this year’s budget.
Under direction of the city, TerraWest Environmental Ltd. conducted a stage one environmental review of the site. The full report, which totals more than 900 pages, is available on the city’s website.
Council agreed during a meeting on Monday, May 13 to forward the stage one report to Dr. Paul Hasselback, the Medical Health Officer for Central Vancouver Island, to review and determine if the site can safely be kept open before a second assessment takes place.
According to city CAO Tim Pley, a stage one review determines whether or not chemical testing is required and, if so, where it is required. Because dam repair work still needs to be undertaken, Pley recommended waiting until the city receives bids for the dam work before further testing takes place. The city does not have any funding in the current financial plan for an environmental assessment, so this could drive the dam remediation over budget.
“Until we have the dam remediation bid prices in hand, that will inform us if we have enough money in that project to do that work, or if there’s any capacity in that budget to do more work,” said Pley on Monday.
In the meantime, city staff will investigate potential grant opportunities.
Mayor Sharie Minions said she didn’t feel “entirely comfortable” going forward with the dam project ahead of stage two testing.
“I see the contamination as a higher risk than the dam,” she said.
Pley pointed out that the city has already been ticketed twice for “mismanaging” the dam.
“It’s work that we’re going to have to do, regardless,” he said. “We have an onus to downstream property owners to maintain a safe dam, as well as to not have contaminants migrate off the site. I don’t think we’re going to avoid either issue.”
Council agreed that they will wait for Dr. Hasselback’s review before they issue tenders for the dam remediation work.
Councillor Cindy Solda expressed concern about the Five Acre Shaker, which is scheduled to take place at McLean Mill this August. Early bird tickets for the event are already on sale, and the musical lineup is expected to be announced soon.
“We have a concert that’s going to be there,” said Solda. “It could be 2,000 to 3,000 people. That’s a lot of young people, all ages, running around on McLean Mill and there could be some serious problems there.”
Pley, however, said that there are no plans at this time to halt the Shaker.
“I expect that concert-goers will not be swimming in the log pond,” he said. “I’m not being flippant. The site’s been open to the public since the early ’90s, and lots of people on site for a long time. I don’t see a smoking gun here that would tell us we need to close the site or limit the use of the site.”
Minions pointed out that although McLean Mill has been open to the public for decades, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the site is safe.
“I think we need an opinion from a professional to make that call,” she said.
Council is expected to continue this discussion during the next council meeting on Monday, May 27. The mill remains open to the public.