Allan BonnerLocal journalists are always looking for ways to blow a hometown story into something that might interest the networks, big city dailies or syndication services.

For me, it was trying to feed stories to the Canadian Press wire service in Halifax while working in local radio and TV in Fredericton and Saint John.

They paid by the word, so naturally I had long stories to tell.

Local journalists also try to work the local angle to a national or international story. I covered the war in Cyprus and broke the story of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s resignation – in Saint John.

This journalistic zooming in and out is going on in St. Stephen, N.B., these days. There’s a plan to remove the Milltown dam, similar to the plan to remove a dam in Marysville. NB Power says Milltown has “reached the end of its life” and will “seek approval to remove” it. They took a look at extending the life beyond 140 years and found it’s “not financially feasible.” The dam accounts for less than one per cent of NB Power’s hydroelectric generation.


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In Europe, 5,000 dams have been removed, according to a study by Spanish engineer Pao Fernandez Garrido of the World Fish Migration Foundation.

About 2,000 dams have been removed in North America, so this is part of a worldwide trend. It’s a trend because many dams, such as the one in Milltown, have outlived their usefulness. They cost far less to remove than to repair and the economic benefit is greater with removal. They generate very little power – about what a few solar panels would.

In Janna Peterson’s master of environmental studies research from 2015, she documents why dam removal is a trend and how we’re a bit behind the curve in Canada.

The U.S. promotes dam removal and has a national strategy, and that may be why they’re ahead. In Canada, dams are regulated differently in different provinces and there’s no pot of money for removal.

The research says 50 years is about the life expectancy of a dam. That’s about how long the one in Marysville was useful and then it sat idle, killing fish for another 50 years. Milltown is past its expected life by about 90 years.

You don’t hear about lives lost much but Peterson has documented the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed around the world when dams have failed.

We don’t keep great records in Canada but we seem to have about 14,000 dams. We have no national agency or federally-regulated dam safety program. There’s a lot of voluntary compliance, which may mean little or none.

A dam safety review can cost up to $250,000. There have been 153 breaches or dams that have been abandoned in B.C. alone. There are many hundreds of mining industry dams that are unregulated.

Dam removal in Canada is catching up. So let’s turn to the economics.

In decision making, if two variables are the same, they cancel each other out. If there are 3.5 jobs needed to run the small power plant, and there will be 3.5 jobs needed to monitor fish, maintain a park, work in the tourism trade or whatever, then jobs are jobs and not an issue. End of discussion.

Peterson notes that it cost about $7 million to take down a dam and $20 million to $30 million to rehabilitate it. I’ve heard $50 million for Milltown.

According to other research in Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia, the technology of power generation, conservation, population shifts and usage indicates that spending lots of money in the hopes we’ll need the power in the future is a mug’s game, even for big projects.

For little ones, a few solar panels or a windmill makes more sense. The East Coast research says there’s an over-optimistic prediction of need and under-estimation of cost. Most dams go way over budget. But then there’s the stranger from out of town who will take a big government grant to save the day by selling the government back its own asset. Nice work if you can get it.

But back to real-life economics. A dam the size of Milltown will take about a year to remove. Fifteen to 30 workers will earn $20 to $60 per hour. Most of those people would be from the community. They’d make about $2 million, using an average number of workers and hourly wage. Some would take their lunch to work. Some would go home for lunch.

Assuming that most would spend a modest average of $5 a day on coffee, a beer after work, occasional breakfasts or lunches, get a better lunch than usual at home, or take the family out on the weekend, that’s a conservative $220,000 injected into the economy.

They’d also need diesel fuel and gasoline to power heavy equipment, and they would need general supplies.

The people in restaurants and bars will in turn spend on items for themselves and that’s the multiplier effect in economics. New, disposable dollars in the economy move through at a high velocity and act like many more dollars as they get multiplied when they change hands. Everybody would gas up, buy some supplies, drink up, and on and on this would go.

Then there’s the sound economic principle known as the ‘bird in the hand.’ The cost of refurbishing could be about seven times the cost of removal. The paid hours needed for removal amount to about seven times the work hours to operate for one year.

This kind of investment is similar to the decision about how much to spend on repairing an old car. Will it last another seven years? Are you throwing good money after bad?

Compounding this calculation is the research from both coasts indicating that we can’t be sure we’ll even need the power seven years from now.

I spend as much time as possible in New Brunswick. I go to see friends, jig for cod, eat seafood, hike and watch for whales. That’s what tourists do and their dollars are new dollars circulating in the economy.

But I can’t imagine anyone goes on holidays to see a dam. Dam removal improves property values, and increases the population of fish, lobster and even whales.

That’s more certain than predicting power usage well into the future.

Dr. Allan Bonner, MSc, DBA, is a crisis manager based in Toronto.

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