North Stormont Fire Chief recommends automated fire-suppression in Nation Rise turbines

North Stormont Fire Chief Dan Gauvin chairs the Oct. 28 Fire Committee meeting. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

BERWICK — North Stormont Fire Chief Dan Gauvin has recommended township council pass a bylaw compelling the installation of automated fire-suppression systems in each of the 29 turbines now under construction in the rural Eastern Ontario municipality.

Gauvin announced his recommendation while chairing the Fire Committee meeting at township headquarters Monday night — a move that prompted township CAO Craig Calder to immediately raise concerns about Gauvin’s self-admitted lack of expertise on the issue and such a bylaw’s potential for increased municipal liability.

“We are professionals, but we are definitely no experts when it comes to wind turbines or auto-suppression systems,” said Gauvin, speaking in his capacity as chief as well as a professional firefighter in Ottawa. “That’s beyond the scope of what I do as a firefighter.”

“What I do recommend is fire-suppression systems in these units,” he nonetheless continued, prompting at least one member of the audience to gasp, “Yes!”

“Where it goes from there is beyond my scope,” the chief added.

“But I do recommend that if we’re able to get these units installed, that we should be heading that route. How it gets there, I’m not sure.” The developer, EDPR, “can come up with something as far as I’m concerned. They have engineers for that.”

Calder said he  “respected” Gauvin’s opinion but noted the township would have to “defend” any decision mandating automated fire-suppression systems in the turbines. “What are we basing the fire chief’s decision on, basically saying, you’re not an expert but that we put them in?” he indirectly queried the chief. “I’m not saying it’s not a good idea, I’m just asking [when] you’re making those two statements at the same time.”

“As fire chief,” Gauvin replied, “my main goal is for life, safety and responsibility for our municipality. So that’s my recommendation that we put them in. Where it goes from there … I’m recommending it. It’s up to EDPR or a consultant or an engineer — maybe we hire somebody to come in and make that decision — but I’m recommending it. But I’m not going to be the one standing in front of everybody saying these are the reasons to put them in. Where it goes from there, I don’t know.”

Calder conceded it was within the township’s authority to pass such a bylaw and that he had spoken to another municipality that had implemented one. Neighbouring South Dundas, however, site of an earlier EDPR project, did not do so, he pointed out.

Below, listen to Gauvin’s recommendation and the entire ensuing discussion.

Backdrop to the discussion by the committee — whose members include the mayor and deputy mayor — was a presentation to council earlier this month by a project critic and local resident. Rainer Pethke played a YouTube video to council showing the reputed “top ten” turbine disasters involving fires and collapses that have occurred around the world. In a few cases, blazes in overheated turbine hubs have spread onto the ground below, and Pethke insisted there was a risk of igniting the corn crops around his home should one of the Nation Rise units catch fire.

Mayor Jim Wert told the committee meeting he was open to the idea of hiring a consultant to advise council on imposing fire-suppression systems at Nation Rise. The mayor observed, however, that there could be a reason — beyond money — that the developers chose not to include the technology with each turbine costing millions of dollars anyway.

“We’ve had legal, we’ve had insurance people come in, and I’ve had lengthy discussions … and they basically sat in front of us, stating the number one way of protecting North Stormont is to stay away when it’s not in our jurisdiction,” observed Deputy Mayor Frank Landry, during a lengthy discussion that ensued with concerned citizens in the public gallery. “If it’s a provincial project, which this is, the best way to protect your interest, is to basically not get involved, or increase liability  … so, we’re caught between legal advice that comes to us, insurance companies stating what we’re covered with, and then the other side, which is the residents which are very much concerned. But who do we listen to? So we’re caught between …

“And you know, any one of you, next election, I’ll sign your nomination papers any day … this is not what I thought I was getting into,” added the deputy mayor, sounding somewhat exasperated. “It’s a big tax. But you’ve got to see both sides, and you might feel like we’re not compassionate … you’ve got to realize where we stand, and the information we’re getting.”

“If it’s money and liability over human safety,” interjected Pethke from the gallery, “then I would recommend … the duty of council is to the residents of this [township].”

The Council Chambers in Berwick have been riven by the Nation Rise project, especially as work got under way this spring. North Stormont Council has a tradition of allowing public questions after each session — a practice that usually generated little to no interest in the past — but in recent months has transformed the room into a biweekly grilling of the local politicians. Other residents in the unhappy gallery can be heard muttering their disagreement with the critics.

Council is expected to discuss Gauvin’s recommendation at its next meeting.

The pouring of thousands of cubic meters of foundation concrete wrapped up last week at Nation Rise turbine sites. Trucks have been rolling out of the Port of Johnstown on the Seaway with blades and tower sections into the community 30 km southeast of Ottawa.  The only major wind project to break ground in Ontario under the watch of Doug Ford’s anti-Green Energy Act government — and featuring the tallest towers in North America — final commissioning of Nation Rise is expected this winter.

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