Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry

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                Incompetence, greed, neglect and dishonesty at root of Algo Centre Mall collapse

    Northern Ontario Construction News staff writer

    The story of the Algo Centre Mall’s deadly roof collapse in Elliot Lake two years ago can be traced to decades of incompetence, neglect, greed and dishonesty by a succession of owners, engineers and municipal officials, according to a provincial judicial inquiry.

    Commissioner Paul Belanger pulled few punches in his October report.

    “Although it was rust that defeated the structure of the Algo mall, the real story behind the collapse is one of human, not material, failures,” Belanger wrote. “Some of these failings were minor, some were not: they ranged from apathy, neglect and indifference through mediocrity, ineptitude and incompetence, to outright greed, obfuscation and duplicity.”

    Two people died when the rooftop parking area, long observed to be leaking, collapsed into the mall.

    There are 71 recommendations in the report from the $20 million inquiry, including setting minimum maintenance standards for buildings, beefed-up inspections, and an expanded emergency response capability.

    Belanger concluded the problems began unfolding several decades ago, to the early 1970s.  He observed the building was “doomed to early failure” even before it was built.

    The idea of putting parking on the roof wasn’t a good idea, and this was compounded by a defective design, using untested materials. “The system was a dismal failure from the moment it was installed,” Belanger’s report states.

    The leaking started early, and there was a succession of inspections, visits and reports  – some 30 overall – through the mall’s 33-year life.

    However, no one solved the leaking problem, which some described as “the Algo Falls.”  And this leaking led to rust, which would ultimately compromise the structural steel’s integrity.

    Belanger asserted that some engineers neglected their vocation’s “moral and ethical foundation,” and he singled out Robert (Bob) Wood, for special criticism.  The engineer said the mall was sound just weeks before it collapsed.

    Wood faces criminal charges in connection with the collapse. “His (Wood’s) review was similar to that of a mechanic inspecting a car with a cracked engine block who pronounces the vehicle sound because of its good paint job,” the report says.

    The commission report observes that various mall owners hid the problems, and then tried to sell their way out of them when quick fixes didn’t work.  Profit considerations overrode all other concerns, Belanger said.

    He described Bob Nazarian, who owned the mall when disaster struck, as being intransigent and  “crafty”, resorting to “subterfuge and falsehood to mislead authorities, tenants and the public,” the report concludes.

    Municipal officials didn’t help, Belanger reported.  The mayor, council and building inspectors ignored complaints and warnings about the leaks and falling concrete.  His report said they failed to enforce, or were ignorant of their own bylaws.  Officials didn’t want to lose the mall – the community’s social and economic hub that generated significant tax revenues.

    Belanger said at one point, the municipality was the mall’s owner, its tenant, and enforcer of property standards – the “worst possible conflict situation.”

    “We are anticipating that Commissioner Belanger’s report will have considerable impact on Ontario’s engineering profession,” said Barry Steinberg, chief executive officer of Consulting Engineers of Ontario (CEO).  “Ultimately, the significance of these recommendations hinge on what the government of Ontario chooses to adopt.

    “Attorney General (Madeleine) Meilleur has immediately committed to an advisory panel to consult with stakehodlers on how to move forward on these proposals,” Steinberg said.

    He said of particular importance to engineers are the commission’s recommendations calling for: establishing a system of continuing professional educational for professional engineering license holders; developing a new performance standard for structural inspections of existing buildings; a requirement for a structural adequacy report of existing buildings, prepared and sealed by a professional engineer certified as a structural engineering specialist, and; providing additional information about professional engineering license holders that have been disciplined for professional misconduct.

    “If enacted, these recommendations represent a net benefit for all concerned,” Steinberg said.  “They will strengthen our profession’s fiduciary responsibility to serve and protect the public interest, as stipulated in the Professional Engineers Act.

    “Going forward the real burden will be on the province and municipalities.  There are new responsibilities for Chief Building Officials, and new requirements requiring changes to the Ontario Building Code impacting record keeping and reporting for the province and municipalities,” he said.  “Success will be defined by what effective enforcement looks like.  It will be interesting to see what recommendations are adopted.”

    Meanwhile, the new 90,000 sq. ft. Elliot Lake Mall to replace the demolished Algo mall is nearing completion, and residents believe it will bring a sense of normalcy and restore access to basic community services.

    You can view the complete inquiry report at www.elliotlakeinquiry.ca and the story about the mall replacement project at www.northernontarioconstructionnews.com/replacing-the-collapsed-algo-centre-mall.

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