A Near Drowning at Purk's Place in Bala raises public safety concerns around SREL generating station

Purk's Place in Bala

Purk's Place and Bala Falls before the build of the hydro generating plant.

SREL Bala hydro generating station

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Agatha Farmer

On June 20th Kathleen Bynoe was working at her grandfathers store Purk's Place in Bala. At around 11:40 a.m. her co-worker informed her that someone needed help. Bynoe said she knew someone was in the water as she heard the familiar splash when people jump off the bridge next to Purk's Place and the new Bala hydro generating station.

Bynoe bolted from the store to the dock and when she realized that a man was struggling to bring a female up without a second thought about her own safety jumped in the waters which are adjacent to a water turbine with an intake valve for a power generation plant mere meters away.

"I could see the man calling for help but could not see the woman because she was under water," she said. Bynoe told the police that the couple were both in the water under the bridge. She swam to the couple to assist the man and helped get the female to Purk's dock. While at the dock she pinned the female against the structure whose eyes were "rolling back in her head" and asked the male if he could pull himself up but he at that point was short of breath. Bynoe then switched places with him, pulled herself to safety and then the woman.

"As I got her onto the dock she started to spit up water and regain consciousness, I yelled at my co-worker to call 911," Bynoe said.

"The man told me she did not swim at all, she went unconscious as soon as she hit the water," said Bynoe. He also told her that both had been drinking and "knew they shouldn't have jumped in."

As they waited for the police and ambulance Bynoe went back to the store; shortly after she said the "couple came stumbling through the store" and said 'Thanks for saving my life but you called the police," and left.

Mitchell Shnier is a local seasonal resident and has been actively vocal about the public safety issues surrounding Purk's Place and the new Bala Hydro Plant.

"I get a panic attack when I think what would have happened to Kathleen had the proponent’s generating station been operating faster as could often happen during the summer. The unconscious woman was submerged so Kathleen had to dive underwater for the rescue, so the proponent’s warning signs and their upstream “safety boom” (even with the hanging metal from it) would not have prevented Kathleen from being pulled underwater to the station’s intake trash rack, held under water by the tons of water entering the turbine, and drowned," he said "Kathleen did the only thing possible to save this woman’s life; there was no time to wait for 911 emergency services to respond (it took 10 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, and longer for the OPP), and there was no way to stop the dangerous generating station soon enough either. Instead of the great story we have of a good Samaritan rescuing someone, it could have been a tragedy of three young people drowned.

It was wrong to build this dangerous generating station in the middle of an extremely-popular in-water recreational area. And it is wrong for it to be operating in the summer; as the council of the Township of Muskoka Lakes confirmed by their unanimously passing a resolution in November 2019 requesting the province not permit operation in the summer."

Bracebridge OPP spokesperson Samantha Bigley confirmed the reported incident.

"On June 20 at 11:39 BB OPP were dispatched to a report of a male and female that had jumped off of the train bridge and there were concerns about the female’s well-being.

EMS and Fire Service were at the scene to assist if necessary. Police arrived within minutes and the two had left, they were located shortly thereafter. A Provincial Offense notice was issued for being intoxicated in a public place," Bigley said.

Muskoka Post inquired with Swift River Energy Ltd., the operator of the Bala Hydro Plant, if the company was aware of the incident and if anyone was at the plant on June 20 at 11:40 a.m. and was the plant in operation that day, if so at what capacity.

SREL stated that "it was the first" they were hearing about it.

"Upon inquiry, we understand that a male and a female, intoxicated, went into the water and were assisted to shore.  They were ticketed and charged by the OPP.  This has been a perennial issue in Bala.  We ask that people stop encouraging the jumping off the CP bridge and report any incidents to the OPP," said SREL spokesperson Nhung Nguyen

Our question regarding personnel at the plant was ignored so we re-asked.

"This event involves the individuals charged and the OPP, you can direct any relevant questions to them," Nguyen said.

We pointed out that the OPP would not have knowledge of their plant staff schedule or monitoring data.

"As we’ve stated and will restate again … this is not an event that involved SREL.  It is clearly a matter between the OPP and the individuals charged and we don’t have anything else to say on the matter.  Thank you for giving us the opportunity to comment," said Nguyen.

In Oct 2019 Muskoka Lakes council unanimously agreed to put the feds and the province on notice and raise red flags regarding public safety around the generating station.

At that same meeting Coun. Donelda Hayes said “I don’t want to put out signs saying ‘Welcome to Bala, use at your own risk."

Mayor Phil Harding also acknowledged issues around the station and public safety.

“We need to look into options as to how we can best support the community and protect our citizens and tourists when they are in the water near Bala Falls. Swift River’s new safety management plan is considerably different than was originally presented over the past decade," he said.

Purk's Place owner Bill Purkis said he is proud of his granddaughter's heroic actions that day.

"There was a strong current that day at our docks. Were it not for her selfless act of heroism, the new, exceedingly dangerous, private power plant at our back door would have claimed its first drowning victim. The power plant must be shut off during the summer tourism season in order to protect public safety. As a token of our appreciation for Kathleen's bravery, Purk's Place has replaced her lost flip flops with a brand new pair of Birkenstock sandals," said Purkis.

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