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Some backroad bridges unsafe, report finds

At left: a well-constructed bridge. At right: A poorly constructed bridge identified in a Forest Practices Board audit. - Courtesy Forest Practices Board
At left: a well-constructed bridge. At right: A poorly constructed bridge identified in a Forest Practices Board audit.
— image credit: Courtesy Forest Practices Board

An investigation by B.C.'s Forest Practices Board has found that 23 per cent of forestry road bridges in the Rocky Mountain District have safety issues.

The damning report by the Forest Practices Board, titled Bridge Planning, Design and Construction: Special Investigation, was released in March 2014. Teams examined bridges throughout B.C. last summer and found that the Rocky Mountain District's bridges have the worst record for both safety and environmental compliance.

"This report is a wake-up call to those who are not complying with the law or the professional practice guidelines," reads the report. "Due to the potentially significant consequences, there are no corners to cut when it comes to bridge design, planning and construction.

"The public and the government expect and deserve high safety, environmental and professional standards, but those standards are not currently being met."

Over the course of summer and fall 2013, teams of a professional forester and a professional engineer visited 216 bridges built on resource roads since January 2010 in the Rocky Mountain Forest District, the Cariboo Chicotin Forest District, the Chilliwack Forest District, the Okanagan Shuswap Forest District, and the Vanderhoof Forest District.

"The Board set out to determine if new bridges are safe for industrial use and if forest resources such as water, soil and fish are being protected," reads the report.

The bridges were built by either B.C. Timber Sales, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, a major licensee on the resource road, or a small-scale licensee.

"Nineteen bridges were obviously unsafe and investigators had serious safety concerns with a further 13 bridges. Overall, only 85 per cent of these new bridges were deemed safe," reads the report.

"Investigators informed all affected licensees about these unsafe bridges. The Board expects these licensees to be diligent and ensure these known bridge deficiencies are corrected prior to any further industrial use, as required by legislation."

In B.C., bridge planning, design and construction on resource roads are governed by legislation and overseen, in most cases, by professional engineers and professional foresters.

The investigation focused on compliance with 13 requirements, split into three categories: planning, environment and safety.

Within the Rocky Mountain Forest District, the investigators examined 56 bridges on forestry roads.

In the environmental category, only 77 per cent of those 56 bridges were compliant on environmental requirements.

• 68 per cent maintained natural surface drainage.

• 70 per cent protected banks and channel.

• 77 per cent controlled sediment.

• 95 per cent maintained fish passage.

However the report said that the June 2013 rainfall event that caused $5.5 million worth of damage to East Kootenay forest roads is partially responsible for this record. More than 30 bridges needed to be repaired after the storm.

"The Rocky Mountain district showed below average results, which may be partially explained by the extreme rain event of June 20, 2013."

Meanwhile, in the safety category, 77 per cent of bridges in the Rocky Mountain Forest District were compliant.

• 71 per cent were safe and sound.

• 77 per cent had no abutment erosion.

• 84 per cent had adequate clearance.

• 77 per cent had safe approaches and alignment.

"The Rocky Mountain and Chilliwack districts showed below average performance with respect to safety issues," states the report. "Certainly, the June 20, 2013 storm event in the Kootenays contributed to eroded abutments and foundation failures, but that was not the only safety issue.

"Some bridges are being classified as temporary by builders and designed and built to a lower standard, which is not permitted by the legislation."

The report does not state where the unsafe bridges are located.

Across the province, the Forest Practices Board found that of the 216 bridges:

• there were incomplete plans for 40 per cent of bridges;

• one-third of bridges did not have a professional seal of approval in the form of a crossing assurance statement;

• designers did not consider the ability of a bridge to pass the expected peak flow of water for 36 per cent of bridges;

• 15 per cent of bridges were not safe and sound, meaning there were obvious safety issues.

"The Board is concerned with the number of unsafe bridges found in this investigation. The issue is not that the legislation and guidance are lacking, but that a significant number of professionals are not following them.

"The professional practice guidelines give flexibility to builders in exchange for properly planning and constructing bridges.

"When these requirements are not followed, public confidence and trust in professionals is eroded, much like poorly protected abutments."

As a result of the investigation, the Forest Practices Board is asking professional associations for forestry and engineering to advise of steps it is taking to address the concerns before October 31, 2014.

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