Muskoka Lakes councillors unanimously raise red flag with feds and province over SREL safety plan

Agatha Farmer

PORT CARLING - Muskoka Lakes council is ready to pushback on the province over the recently released Swift rivet Energy Limited public safety plan.

At an Oct. 16 township meeting councillors listened to a deputation by Bala Falls activist Mitchell Shnier regarding the townships liability given the current safety measures around the hydro plant.

According to Mayor Phil Harding Muskoka Lakes extended an invitation to Swift River and to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to address Shnier’s concern.

“They declined to join us,” said Harding

Shnier went on to present the risks that would be created for the township due to the operation of the Bala generating station.

Shnier said that the proponent has recently “quietly” released a public safety plan.

“The challenge is that yes there would be the same water flowing through Bala but now it would be going through the North Channel instead of the South Channel. The township docks and the only boat rentals in the area are directly on the North Channel and this is a significant change to public safety,” he said.

Shnier indicated that the Ministry of Transportation has a calculation illustrating where the upstream safety boom should be located.

“Calculation shows it should be further upstream from where it is and yet they will not move it,” he said.

Shnier pointed to a case study from Quebec.

“The coroner specifically said that it appeared that the upstream safety boom was part of the problem because the canoe tipped being forced against this. The safety booms are great for warning boats from a distance but it’s not a good idea to have if your boat pushed up against it by the force of the water,” he said.

Shnier notes that SREL’s safety plan does not describe any measures that would be suitable for this situation to provide safety.

“This plan does not address the actual dangers. The fact is using the proponents own information that if a canoe is stuck on the upstream safety boom ... and if it tips within 45 seconds they would be held under water at the generating station ... and that would be their end,” he said.

Schneir concluded that in this case there is no department of public safety and “you’re left holding the bag.”

He noted that past councils, as well as the present council passed resolutions regarding being an unwilling host. That the project has been driven by the province, forced on the township and so therefore why should the township hold any kind of responsibility should someone be injured.

Shnier asked council to pass a resolution and write a letter to the province requesting indemnity for the township, and for the province to take full responsibility for the approvals they provided to SREL.

Councillor Glenn Zavitz noted that there is a business, Purk’s Place, directly under the bridge in the North Channel.

“When I see the new markers on this plan and that they are going to be out into the bay; What is that going to do to his business,” Zavitz asked.

Shnier was clear that Purk’s Place would not be able to rent boats.

Zavitz continued and said that this has been such a divisive issue “for so long.”

“If this was public, two years ago, a year ago, six months ago; the town of Bala would be crazy with this information,” he said.

“This is not openness and disclosure, The Bala community has their regatta of 105 years right there, and we just sit here and look at this and go ‘oh this is something new,’ that’s crazy. That’s 12 years the town of Bala has been fighting exactly this.”

Councillor Susan Mazan pointed out that there are 8 to 10 docking spaces that are the primary docks for Bala. She is supportive of trying to find a way to mitigate responsibility for something which has been imposed on the township. She feels that this will have a significant economic impact.

Mayor Harding wasn’t sure if a municipality had ever sent a resolution to the province stating “we don’t want any liability.”

The tone of the meeting shifted as did the ask when Councillor Ruth Nishikawa wanted to change Shnier’s ask to reflect the fact that “we are now talking about real lives.”

She wants a lengthier discussion with the province about Bala’s recreational use and the impact on the municipality’s economy.

“There is not much left of Bala quite honestly,” she said.

After a year around the table the signature style of this council emerged once again as they unanimously agreed to put the feds and the province on notice and raise red flags regarding public safety around the generating station and its impact on the Muskoka Lakes economy.

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

Harding concluded the discussion and raised some eyebrows, including those of his chief administrative officer, when he said that “this plan is contrary to everything we’ve heard in 10 years .... this will definitely have a financial impact ... I’ll be honest I’ve got a little bit of a feisty side right now and say let’s sue the province for economic loss.”

Harding later qualified his off the cuff comment during the meeting by saying that “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.  Staff will provide more information and options early November for council to consider.”

The matter will be coming back to council at the November meeting.

Muskoka Post reached out to SREL for comment on declining the invitation to the Oct. 16 council meeting, however, one was not provided before the publication of this article.

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