Release of Bala hydro plant public safety plans confirms community concerns

Muskoka Post Staff

BALA – Swift River Energy Limited (SREL) the builder and owner of the Bala Generating Station has been testing the power plant since Sept. 18.

In a press release the company stated that testing of the new power plant will be controlled and incremental for a 3-week period in order to prepare the facility for operation.  Testing will occur from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. for 7 days a week.

 “Members of the public and stakeholders can be assured that the testing procedures have been prepared by experts. Plans have been carefully developed with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Ontario Power Generation. During testing, SREL will be coordinating with them several times a day. Daily variations in water flows will cause some fluctuation of water levels. However, the test program has been prepared to maintain water levels within the Best Management Zone as outlined in the Muskoka River Water

Management Plan for various reservoirs from Lake Muskoka to Go Home Lake. The MNRF will continue to operate the Bala North and South Dam during this time.

During testing, the public is advised to exercise caution. SREL will be monitoring the vicinity of the Bala Generating Station and dams but the public is requested to assist by remaining clear of the area immediately adjacent to the station during this period.”

Allan Turnbull lives adjacent to the station on Moon River and is “extremely concerned” about the testing and operation of the plant. He takes specific note of SREL’s advisement for the public to exercise caution and stay away from the plant.

“So, can we no longer swim or canoe from our home? And if it is going to be like this during testing, what are things going to be like once the plant is operating?” he said.

“Now these warnings to the public seem to indicate that the only way for it to operate safely is for the public to stay away from the falls. Just one more proof of how crazy an idea it was to build a hydro plant in the middle of a well-used and well-loved in-water recreational area. The government should at least insist that it not operate during the high use summer season.”

Turnbull said he received the notice from SREL via email.

“I am hearing that not many people did. They do not seem to have made any attempt to notify the general public of the testing. It is not only people who live around the falls who use the Moon River,” he said.

Turnbull also questioned if the company had released a public safety plan, as when SREL was asked by the community to provide one in the past it was not available.

Muskoka Post reached out to Swift River regarding the disclosure of the public safety plans. Nhung Nguyen, SREL spokesperson, provided the link to the document.

The 71-page report was prepared by WSP Canada Inc. WSP pre-phases the report by writing that it “does not accept responsibility for damages, if any, suffered by any third party as a result of decisions made or actions taken by said third party based on this report. This limitations statement is considered an integral part of this report.”

Among many paragraphs the ones which will stand out to the Bala community are the sections which refer to the safety of recreational activities around the Bala Falls.

The report outlines four hazardous zones at the site.

The railway bridge

The intake area upstream of the powerhouse

The tailrace area downstream of the powerhouse

The Bala Falls Generating Station

It states that the “proposed development area is heavily used by the public for both aquatic and terrestrial recreational activities. The area immediately around the Bala Falls G.S. development is a known recreational area, where the public participates in activities including:

Swimming upstream and downstream of the dams

Boating/paddling upstream of the dams

Boating/paddling downstream of the dams including white water kayaking in the downstream channel during high flow conditions

Portaging around the dams (north of the North Bala Dam, and south of the proposed G.S. site)

Climbing up onto the CP rail bridge and jumping off into the area upstream of the dam (this is a prohibited activity but has been noted to occur (WESA, 2011))

Picnicking, sightseeing and general recreation: On the rocks immediately downstream of the existing MNRF North Bala Dam when not in use

At Diver’s Point

At Margaret Burgess Park on the north side of the downstream channel, and

On the future park on the lands immediately south of the planned Bala Falls G.S.”

The report then goes on to outline the risk analysis on the area once the hydro plant is in operation.

“This review resulted in the identification of the following activities which could expose the public to a range of potential hazards from trip/fall to drowning. The activities identified through this process are as follows, in no particular order of severity, likelihood or risk:

1 Trespass on G.S. (and related structures)

2 Swimming upstream

3 Wading/swimming downstream

4 Paddling upstream

5 Paddling downstream

6 Jumping off CP bridge (illegal trespassing)”

Mitchell Shnier is a neighbour and long- time opponent of the hydro plant.  Shnier has been worried about recreational safety of the Bala Falls area since the introduction of the development. He has been actively vocal about SREL’s reluctance to release the public safety plan last year.

Muskoka Post forwarded Shnier the long awaited public safety report which he said has confirmed his original concern.

”This document confirms what the community and the council of the Township of Muskoka Lakes has clearly stated: this dangerous industrial facility could not be operated safely so must not run from May through October, as this is when there is nearby in-water recreation,” he said.

 “For example, the document states that during the in-water recreational season the dangerously fast water that used to be directed through the Bala south channel would instead be directed through the north channel. This would quickly draw boats approaching and leaving both the Township’s docks and the boat rental docks right to the upstream safety boom, and boats would get stuck there held and tipped-up by the force of this dangerously fast water. And in just 45 seconds anyone falling over the upstream safety boom would be sucked into the station’s trash rack and held under water, and that would be their end.”

Township of Muskoka Lakes communications person, Corey Moore, said in an email statement that “public safety is the number one priority for the Township of Muskoka Lakes. Public Works has reached out to Swift River Energy Limited to confirm that proper protocols for testing the power plant are in place. Emergency Services is aware of the testing and has confirmed they have the proper equipment and personnel to respond to an emergency.”

SREL is advising Bala residents to contact their toll-free number at 1-877-389-4099 with any questions or concerns. In the case of an emergency please call 9-1-1.

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