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Leak at Abbotsford prison complex leached chemicals for 4 years, says report

Federal investigation concludes Corrections staff guilty of ‘gross mismangement’

A federal investigation has found that management at the Matsqui prison complex in Abbotsford failed to adequately respond to a serious leak, resulting in millions of litres of chemically treated water leaching chemicals into the soil for almost four years.

A case report tabled Tuesday (March 19) in Parliament from Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Harriet Holloway concluded that Correctional Service Canada (CSC) staff had committed “gross mismanagement.”

“Many individuals in management positions were aware of the leak, and they failed to take sufficient action to mitigate impacts over a period of years,” Holloway wrote in the report.

The chemically treated water leached into soil near an aquifer, agricultural lands and salmon habitats, the report states.

The investigation began in January 2022 after a whistleblower came forward, and 14 witnesses were interviewed.

The Matsqui prison complex on King Road is the site of Pacific Institution, which is situated on top of three aquifers, one of which flows into a salmon-bearing stream.

The site also includes Matsqui Institution and the Fraser Valley Institution for Women.

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The central heating plant supplies hot water for the complex – which houses more than 1,070 inmates – as well as for domestic use.

The plant carries hot water through an underground piping system that is located four to five feet below ground level, the report states.

An issue with the system was first reported in August 2017 by an engineer who noticed a “substantial leak” and said he would request immediate help from maintenance staff.

The following month, the engineer recommended proceeding with excavation to locate the leak, the report states.

Excavation began in October 2017 but was suspended due to the ground freezing. In July 2018, an engineer contacted CSC management, stressing the urgency to address the issue.

“In his message, the engineer noted that by the end of the month, approximately 1.1 million 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 case report states.

The report says that instead of excavating the pipes, CSC management did “exploratory digging” and employees performed several valve shutdowns.

In October 2018, a company was hired to find the leak using hydrovac technology.

Neither of these measures was successful in locating the leak.

No work was carried out in the summer or fall of 2019, according to the report.

“The majority of witnesses interviewed by the Office stated that in 2019 CSC management gave up on trying to find the leak, justifying their purposeful inaction by pointing to ongoing discussions about the possible closure of the (central heating plant) and its eventual replacement with a decentralized system,” the report states.

It says that, at the time of the investigation, the central heating plant was still in operation.

The report says that no excavation occurred between 2019 and 2021 “because the necessary funds were not available.” But no funding request was ever made to CSC headquarters, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the report says that CSC management continued to ignore pleas from an engineer about the urgency of the situation.

Excavation of the pipe system took place on April 29, 2021, and “multiple leaks” were found, according to the report. The leaks were fully repaired the following month.

“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,” the documents state.

The investigation also found that CSC, despite having been aware that major leaks can result in environmental contamination, did not test the soil until 2020, and the contractor hired tested for the “wrong type” of chemical.

“This is a serious error not debatable among reasonable people. Due to the mismanagement of the environmental testing, we are not able to conclude whether any environmental damage was caused by the chemicals in question at the relevant time,” the report states.

The report also criticizes the CSC for failing to report the leak to the B.C. government until 2021.

Among the recommendations made in the report is that an independent environmental-impact assessment be made of the area around the prison complex.

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The report also recommends that CSC ensure its maintenance plans are up to date for aging facilities and that it establishes a plan for the reporting, receiving and addressing of critical infrastructure risks and failures.

CSC responded in the report, saying it disagreed with the conclusion that it committed wrongdoing and that it had undertaken “many actions under the guidance of environmental experts” to respond to the leak.

The CSC stated that over the last three years, it has implemented a “rigorous process” to assess its facilities and determine the “higher-priority projects.”

An assessment of Matsqui Institution is currently underway and is expected to be complete by the end of the year, the CSC states.

The CSC also states that environmental consultants tested for contamination in 2020 and again in 2021 after the pipes were repaired.

“Their 2022 report concluded that there was no contamination and recommended that further assessment for contamination … is not required.”

Pacific Institution in Abbotsford is situated on top of three aquifers at the Matsqui prison complex, along with Matsqui Institution and the Fraser Valley Institution for Women. The complex was the subject of a federal investigation into a major leak of its water system.
Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford is part of the Matsqui prison complex on King Road. Also on the site are Pacific Institution and the Fraser Valley Institution for Women. The complex was the subject of a federal investigation into a major leak of its water system.