History’s industrial strategy haunts us today

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Allan BonnerWhat goes around comes around, they say. The oblique turn of a phrase may apply to the news that a 100-year-old dam will be demolished in Fredericton, N.B.

Things fall down and are torn down all the time, so why would this story be of interest?

I was a reporter in New Brunswick when the Marysville Cotton Mill was closed in the early 1970s. I didn’t realize that nobody thought to close the dam at the same time, so 50 years later the people downstream are in danger of being flooded if it collapses.

The bigger lessons are about industrial strategy, entrepreneurship and the environment.

The cotton mill was built at a time when visionary entrepreneurs could buy up or set up a company town to house workers to run their factories. In this case, Alexander Gibson of St. Andrews, N.B., actually bought up a small town in 1862 and expanded Marysville in several ways.

Vertical and horizontal integration was the wave of the future so Gibson made his own brick works to produce the raw material to build his buildings. He also built dams to control the river in order to float his logs.

He did a lot of good, especially cleaning up buildings and helping end a typhoid fever endemic by building a new model town.

One of the buildings Gibson built was the cotton mill, the largest in the Maritimes. It’s spectacular, four storeys high, more than 400 feet long and 100 feet wide. It had the first electric lighting in Fredericton and a sprinkler system.

I’d buy a condo in it if I could. But it’s an office building and the closest I got was a few brief meetings in it long after it closed as a mill. The provincial government turned it into offices. It and the town are national historic sites. Marysville is now part of Fredericton.

The dam did 50 years of service to the mill and workers. That’s 50 years of jobs, taxes, exports, people getting married, kids going to school and a thriving community. Then it sat derelict for 50 years.

Those exports were more valuable than you might think. Economists say there’s a multiplier effect of about 18 with an export. That means the dollar earned is a new dollar that moves through the economy as the industrialist pays workers, they buy food, the grocer buys a horse and so on. With a dollar of government spending, the multiplier is about three since it’s an old dollar with which the road worker buys lunch and then has to wait for the next paycheque to have more disposable income.

So the extent to which Gibson exported products and built infrastructure, he was a big contributor to the province.

But then came 50 years of dead fish, stagnant water, methylmercury poisoning, silt buildup and now the danger of collapse.

Gibson died in 1913 and by then must have long since made his money back, in part through government grants. The government gave him more than 1.5 million acres for building a railway to northern New Brunswick. He also received money from county and city governments. He then sold the railway for $800,000. Entrepreneurship gets a little boost from taxpayers on a regular basis.

If Gibson were obtaining a permit to build today, he’d have to go through a few hoops. He’d succeed, but would likely have to have a plan to decommission after the life of the dam and mill. He would have had to create fishways so Atlantic salmon could pass around or over the dam to spawn, since that’s a species at risk. There would be accommodation for other species as well.

Stagnant water presents a health risk in many ways and that would have to be addressed. Methylmercury leaches out of submerged trees and affects brain development, especially in youngsters. Methylmercury buildup is also a result of atmospheric mercury that accumulates via the large water surface created by the dam.

The silt behind the dam builds up pressure, increasing the possibility of collapse. The structure also prevents silt from naturally flowing downstream. Downstream needs the silt to absorb storm surges. With more severe weather events, we need that shock absorption.

Perhaps because the silt changes the water level, and perhaps for other reasons, the water temperature changes and that too can harm aquatic life.

The danger of collapse may sound far-fetched until you look at the facts.

There are at least 2,000 unsafe dams in North America. Twenty per cent were built in the 18th century. Forty is the average age of a dam. About 80 per cent are made of earth and that probably means unstable vegetable matter and even garbage.

Fifteen hundred or so dams are about a mile upstream from a city. That would give the residents a few seconds’ notice if the dam broke. Recently two dams broke in Michigan, causing thousands of people to leave their homes. One dam had safety violations, its licence was revoked and it had noticeable problems for 20 years.

Dozens of dams failed in the Carolinas about five years ago. More recently, there was a partial failure of the highest dam in America, in Oroville, Calif., and that caused evacuations. A Nebraska dam failed a few years ago, too, causing more evacuations.

Since about 70 per cent of North American dams are more than 50 years old, there may have been many other failures and will surely be more in the future. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the entire dam inventory in the U.S. a D in a report card. They cite age, development downstream, no funding for dam safety and even abandoned dams.

The Canadian Maritime provinces and New England have lots of old dams because of the age of European settlement. That’s reason to worry.

The classic definition of pollution is “matter out of place.” The silt is out of place. The dam is out of place. The fish are out of place. The water is out of place. It’s worth taking action before a lot of people are out of place.

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

Allan is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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