A 'preventable disaster'

Re. Heart-wrenching to watch (Castanet, March 31)

The “heart-wrenching to watch” headline on Castanet concerning the evacuation of the Hadgraft Wilson Place in downtown Kelowna is an understatement.

Imagine it is early afternoon on Easter Sunday as you are preparing Easter dinner, only to be evicted from your home by the Fire Department and by (city) bylaw officers, and told that by April 2 you had to move out.

How could this possibly happen where construction of the building next door is (for) UBCO, an esteemed institution of higher learning including the education of engineers. I pity and feel for those affected and know this debacle was preventable, both in the construction planning and engineering stages, as well as once ground settlement had been observed and neighbouring structures were already (affected).

Deep supported excavations undertaken in high water table environments in dense urban settings, such as for the UBCO building, are nothing new by any stretch. They are a matter of course (i.e. structural cut-off walls) all over the world, with rarely an incident, let alone where neighbouring structures are condemned .

Ground settlement with aquifer depletion, via dewatering is a known issue. As a retired engineer responsible for the execution of such excavations, I know. I have also witnessed other similar excavation projects in supposed Third World countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.

It is simply not normal to expect, or even tolerate, any impact outside of the construction foot-print without robust engineering design and a serious mitigation plan in place.

In early January, after viewing the site, I wrote to both the City of Kelowna and the Association of Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C. urging them to, among other measures, cease work on the project until a remediation plan was put in place by an experienced engineering firm.

The association advised me my complaint would not be accepted as it already had a complaint filed on Nov. 29, 2023. The City of Kelowna’s mayor and councillors did not even bother to respond.

I visited the site in late January to speak with the contractor’s representative to offer a solution to their problem and was told “don’t worry about it, we know what we are doing”. Of course if they knew what they were doing, there wouldn’t now be four condemned buildings.

I told them at the time if they continued construction, the Hadgraft Wilson building would be certain to be condemned. Frankly, I’m concerned other nearby structures may be subject to settlement issues that are not yet noticed or publicized.

The general public may not know that the B.C. NDP government enacted the professional Governance Act (PGA) to oversee the regulation of the engineering profession in the province. Whereas the profession of engineering was once a truly self-regulating profession, it is now effectively governed by politically appointed representatives of the current government. Under the act, officials hold the power to step in at any point to stop (potential) engineering disasters before they become real live disasters. Where is the government, and specifically the PGA, in all of this? Surely, the 84 residents of Hadgraft Wilson Place and the (Royal Canadian) Legion would love answers and accountability.

An engineer’s core responsibility is the protection of the public. Obviously, the ball was dropped in this “disaster” by not only the design engineer(s) but by the Association of Engineers for not stepping in once it became aware of the (situation) back in November. It is most certainly a black mark on the B.C. engineering community.

So, what now? UBCO has suspended construction activities while it goes back to the drawing board. In the meantime, and over the next several months, what happens to the 84 displaced residents? Where are they housed and how are they to be compensated fairly, not only for the direct costs associated with the displacement but also the needless stress they have and are living under?

Who foots the bill for the increased construction costs, land/structure settlement claims, extra engineering costs, damaged infrastructure, individual claims, etc.? UBCO as a public institution gets funding ultimately from taxpayers. Does that mean B.C. taxpayers are on the hook for this? If UBCO claims everything is being covered by insurance, does that mean insurance rates will continue to escalate? Will the public ever know what the “extra” bill is or will it be buried in government accounts?

What liability does the City of Kelowna hold for this? It was advised early on to issue a rational stop work order on the project. Why did it not act prudently and timely? Who in the city takes responsibility?

Heads should roll over this preventable “disaster.”

Jim McMullan, Kelowna

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