Question re: Ross River School repairs - May 11, 2015

Mr. Silver: The government is currently working with contractors to fix the Ross River School. One of the problems is obviously permafrost and the fact that the school is built on top of it. Now, it’s my understanding that there have been several different engineering reports done that outline these concerns and a contract is to be awarded later this week for repairs. I believe the contract is around the $2-million range.

Can the minister tell Yukoners how many engineering reports have in fact been done, and will they be available for the public?

Hon. Mr. Graham: I have no idea how many engineering reports were done. I know there were at least two that I am aware of. I have really, at this time, no idea why we would release the reports to the public, but if this is something that people wish to look at and it’s not proprietary information, then I don’t see any difficulty at all and I’ll undertake at least to consult with my colleague, the Minister of Highways and Public Works, to see if these reports are available at this time.

Mr. Silver: I do appreciate the minister looking into this. When I talked to Chief Ladue of the Ross River Dena Council last Friday, he was not told too much about this as well — about the plans with the repairs — and his First Nation has not been provided with the engineering reports either, so it would be great to have those out.

I think these reports should be made public because they ensure that the scope of the work being considered actually addresses the concerns from the engineers and no corners are being cut. These reports typically point out that finding the source of the problem is a necessary part of the fix. In this case, the question of where the water is coming from would be a required part of that solution. For example, freezing the groundwater that the school may be on may only be a short-term fix if the source of that water causing the problem in the first place is not addressed.

Has the minister heard of these concerns, and is he satisfied the scope of the work is sufficient?

Hon. Mr. Graham: We’ve heard the concerns. I haven’t personally read the engineering reports, but I’ve been provided with a synopsis of what those engineering reports state.

More than trying to pin down a specific engineer about a specific item that he or she may have recommended, my focus is on getting the school safe and ready for occupancy in the fall session. Those people — the students and the staff in Ross River — have been absolutely wonderful during my trips there. I have spent a great deal of time talking with both the teachers and the students, and they are so enthusiastic about getting back in that school and that’s our focus at the present time.

Mr. Silver: I understand that there are budgetary pressures and also a desire to have the school open in September but, at the same time, we don’t want to spend $2 million this year and then maybe a million dollars later if we don’t actually address the problem. The government’s approach might be raising a few questions here. For example, is the government certain that the ground is stable enough to do these repairs? Is the minister aware of the geotechnical reports? We’ve heard an answer on the floor about that as well today. Also, finally, is the minister certain that the work he plans to sign off on this week is the right long-term solution for the people of Ross River?

Hon. Mr. Kent: The Ross River School was built using a thermosyphon heat extraction system, which removes heat from the soil beneath the foundation of the building to avoid thaw of the underlying permafrost. Ongoing structural and geotechnical inspections, four level surveys and ground temperature monitoring have been carried out to track movement and make periodic adjustments. Differential movement of the building has caused some damage to drywall and other finishes. As the Minister of Education mentioned during his two visits, I believe, to the community of Ross River since this happened, we are working with engineering firms. Highways and Public Works in fact has issued a public request for qualifications. From that, a short list of qualified design/build teams will then be asked to provide bids for the work to be completed. We’ve also contracted a local engineering firm to review the thermosyphon system data to determine if it’s functioning as designed. The thermosyphon system is intended to stabilize the permafrost below the building, as I mentioned.

As mentioned by the Minister of Education, our two departments are working closely so that we can have the students back into the school this fall in a safe environment, which is of utmost importance to everyone.