By Andrea Arnold

Last week, we wrote an article voicing some of the frustrations and concerns regarding the recent sealcoating of the highway through McBride and on to Tete Jaune. The Ministry of Transportation had since replied to our inquiry for more information.

“We understand that this project has caused some frustration for people in the area and appreciate their patience as we complete this important work,” they said.

The Ministry says that the decision to sealcoat on Highway 16 was made to allow the life of the road to be extended until asphalt paving or hot-in-place recycling are required. An assessment showed sealcoating was the more appropriate treatment based on the current condition of the highway, the Ministry says.

As of July 20th, the area of Highway 16 between Belle Mountain to Laing Road was declared complete. Closer to Valemount, the section of highway between Lee Road to Blackman Road was considered complete as well, however, only the first of three sweeping operations were in progress. The Ministry says sideroads will be swept once the highway sections are complete. They expect a final work date to be July 28th. Until the project has been fully swept, been deemed to be complete and handed over to the highways maintenance contractor and district office, the construction contractor is responsible for the site.

The Ministry says staff met with the Village of McBride before and during the project and solicited feedback, which was incorporated into the project.

The Village of McBride confirmed that on May 30th, representatives from the Ministry met with members of council. The representatives promised that dust and flying debris would be diligently and promptly managed with water and sweeping to keep it to a minimum. 

Mid-project, on July 11th, the Village sent a letter to Minister Rob Fleming urgently requesting that operations cease immediately. The promises of dust and debris mitigation were not being followed through on.

“The decision to sealcoat a major, Class A, highway was misguided and inappropriate for a busy northern transportation corridor,” said the letter. “Residents and business owners in McBride are being severely impacted by choking dust that has filled the valley since the contractor began applying gravel to Highway 16 and surrounding side roads.”

The letter went on to describe businesses having to close, damage to vehicles, health of humans and livestock, highway speeds and the safety of drivers through the valley.

Following the active construction period, speed reduction signs were initially removed and traffic was permitted to flow through the community at normal speeds resulting in rock chip damage and high dust volumes. 

In the 2020 Standard Specifications for Highway Construction Volume 1 of 2 that was provided by the Ministry, it outlines the manner in which traffic control is to be carried out during a sealcoating project.

Section 508 states that “The Traffic Control shall be maintained at all times when in the opinion of the Ministry Representative, the risk of damage to the mat is likely to become a safety issue or to result in unnecessary vehicular damage from loosened rock. Additional traffic control to protect the quality of the product is also the responsibility of the Contractor. Traffic through the work zone shall be limited to 50 km per hour, or as directed by the District Manager Transportation, until completion of final sweeping.”

Following outcry from the community, some speed reduction was implemented, however, highway speeds were posted at 70km per hour.

The Village and many residents appealed to MLA Shirley Bond to help push for action. 

“I have raised this issue of the decision to sealcoat directly with the ministry since before the project started, and expressed my concerns that a Class A Highway, with significant industrial traffic should be paved,” said MLA Bond. Investment in northern and rural roads is essential not just for residential or tourist traffic, but for the economy of the entire province. Despite concerns raised by me and the Mayor and Council, the decision was made to proceed.”

Bond said that she told the ministry she felt there had been a lack of consultation or conversation with locally elected officials.

“Since the project began we have continually raised issues with the Ministry of Transportation, called to try and speak directly with the Minister of Transportation and have written an urgent letter to the Minister asking for reconsideration of the plan, pointing out a list of impacts including the overwhelming amount of dust on people, property, air quality, livestock and small businesses including Crazy Cones,” she said. 

MLA Bond requested that residents be compensated for damaged windshields and other vehicle damage that occurred as a result of the project. Her office has been responding to calls, emails and she says they continue to press the government for a response. 

“Our community and residents deserve answers and we are continuing to advocate on their behalf,” she said.

Staff at the Village of McBride said that the Acting Associate Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure had called and left a message after hours following the letter. The message requested a conversation with the Mayor, Gene Runtz, however the details of the resulting phone call, or any others that may have occurred were unavailable by press time. 

One of the headaches brought to residents was that of long waits for pilot cars. A short trip into town turned into almost an hour ordeal in some cases. The question as to why the contractor didn’t use side roads as detours or work in shorter spans as they neared the community was asked.

“Working on long spans increases the efficiency of on-site work, reducing the duration of the project and minimizing disruption to the local community and to traffic along the highway,” was the explanation provided by the ministry. “Traffic management practices and requirements are defined and were followed as per the 2020 Traffic Management Manual for Work on Roadways manual. The traffic management plan for this project was reviewed and approved by ministry engineering staff prior to project start.”

In the letter sent to Minister Fleming, the Village commented that the gravel being applied to the highway was unsuitable as evidenced by the amount of dust that was being produced. The ministry said that the contractor is required to use materials that meet standard construction specifications such as durability and particle size. However, when asked they did not provide information as to how, when or if there was testing occurring to ensure the material used was adhering to the standards set. 

MP Bob Zimmer visited the valley mid project and experienced first hand the dusty conditions.

“I have never seen it so much like white out conditions when it wasn’t winter,” he said. “It was daunting. When you can’t see the cars in front of you, that is unacceptable. It’s a big deal.” 

“Testing for materials and processes are defined and a requirement within the contract agreement,” the Ministry said.

Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson asked the province for a sieve particle analysis for the material they used for the seal coating project near Dunster. 

“They replied that I was required to submit a freedom of information request,” he said.

MP Zimmer said that he was looking forward to hearing the response from the province following that request. The Goat plans to submit an FOI for the analysis.

The project is expected to wrap up by the end of July. The expectation of the Standards Specification document is that “Following completion of sealing operations. The Contractor shall remove all loose aggregate remaining on all surface treated and paved surfaces to the satisfaction of the Ministry Representative.” 

This includes not only the highway, but the sideroads that they worked on as well.

For the many people who had their vehicles damaged from flying rock chips or lost business due to the construction, the ministry provided a claims process 

The Goat raised some questions with the Ministry on the methods used by the contractor regarding their employees. During their time in and around the McBride area, they too were exposed to the excessive dust and over their span of work no bathroom facilities (ie. porti-potti) were located in an accessible area to where they were working. The Ministry did not respond to these questions.