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Corrections service ignored leak at B.C. prison for years: report

The Public Sector Integrity Commissioner says Correctional Service Canada officials ignored the advice of engineers as millions of litres of water from a central heating system leaked into the ground at Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The Public Sector Integrity Commissioner says Correctional Service Canada officials ignored the advice of engineers as millions of litres of water from a central heating system leaked into the ground at Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Canada's Public Sector Integrity Commissioner issued a damning report Tuesday accusing officials with the federal corrections service of waiting years to fix a pipe that was leaching chemically treated water into the soil surrounding an Abbotsford, B.C., prison.

After conducting an investigation involving 14 people, Harriet Solloway found Correctional Service Canada (CSC) committed "gross mismanagement" — ignoring the advice of engineers as millions of litres of water from a central heating system leaked into the ground at Matsqui Institution.

"In reviewing the evidence, it becomes clear that CSC management did not undertake adequate and timely remedial action, demonstrating serious errors impacting safety and potentially harming the environment," Solloway wrote in her conclusions.

She said the actions didn't reflect "responsible stewardship of government funds and assets."

'Ethical and moral obligation'

According to the report, the Matsqui prison complex sits on top of three aquifers — one of which flows into a salmon-bearing stream.

In August 2017, an engineer noticed a problem with the underground piping system carrying hot water to the more than 1,000 inmates housed in the medium-security facility.

prisoners wait behind bars
prisoners wait behind bars

An engineer noticed a problem in August 2017 with the underground piping system carrying hot water to the more than 1,000 inmates housed in the medium-security facility. (iStock)

The report says employees add anti-corrosion chemicals to the boiler water.

A month after the leak was discovered, an engineer recommended excavation of the system to locate the leak.

"The engineer noted that by the end of the month, approximately 1,100,000 litres of chemically treated hot water would have leaked into the ground, and that he had an 'ethical and moral obligation' to inform management," the report says.

Holloway notes that in the four years following the initial discovery of the leak, several employees asked management to act. The engineer continued trying to raise the alarm, "but he was ignored."

The report says cost was cited as one rationale for not taking action, as was the possibility that the central heating system itself was ultimately going to be replaced.

At one point, in defiance of the engineer's advice, CSC tried unsuccessfully in 2018 to locate the leak using a procedure involving high-water pressure and a vacuum.

"Finally, on April 29, 2021, excavation of the entire pipe system was undertaken, nearly four years after an engineer's recommendation," the report says.

"As a result, multiple leaks were eventually found. By that time, according to CSC engineering personnel, millions of litres of chemically treated hot water had seeped into the ground."

No contamination and 'negligible' risks

Even then, it took nearly a month to fix the problem.

In the meantime, employees had to run two water pumps 24 hours a day in May 2021, adding cold water at one point, which led to the risk of an explosion caused by thermal shock and the filing of a safety complaint by an engineer.

Patches are seen on the arm and shoulder of a corrections officer in the segregation unit at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women during a media tour, in Abbotsford, B.C., on Thursday October 26, 2017.
Patches are seen on the arm and shoulder of a corrections officer in the segregation unit at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women during a media tour, in Abbotsford, B.C., on Thursday October 26, 2017.

The report found Correctional Service Canada committed 'gross mismanagement' in ignoring the leak and engineers' advice. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

More than 400 inmates were also left without hot water and space heating for two days.

"On May 25, 2021, after excavating and exposing the pipes under the Matsqui Institution, the leak was found and fully repaired," Holloway wrote.

"Several witnesses interviewed by our office stated that this major leak could have been prevented had it been found and repaired in a timely manner."

Holloway's report makes four recommendations, including the need to ensure maintenance plans for aging facilities are kept up to date and to establish an "action plan" to report, receive and address and critical infrastructure failures.

She also recommended an "independent, external environmental impact assessment of the area surrounding the Matsqui Complex, including aquifers, agricultural lands and salmon habitats, to determine possible past, present and future impact of the leak."

The last pages of the report include a response from CSC. Officials say tests have found no contamination and "negligible" risks — a conclusion Holloway said she accepted.

The agency said it also agreed with the call for "effective maintenance plans for all facilities across regions, especially for those with aging infrastructure."