A snowcat went through the would-be ice bridge in Dawson City on Jan. 22, halting work on the winter project.
Paul Murchison, the director of the transportation engineering branch at Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works, confirmed the machine sank on the shores of the Yukon River around 5 p.m. on Jan. 22.
According to Murchison, a large chunk of ice, roughly 100 by 50 meters, broke away and the cat sunk to its current location, a couple metres below the surface of the water.
Two employees of Cobalt Construction, the contractor in charge of the project, were in the cab of the snowcat, but Murchison said a stringent health and safety plan allowed both to exit the cab without injury.
Murchison said part of the contract the government had with Cobalt was that Cobalt would bring in an expert on the construction of ice roads and bridges. That company, NOR-EX, did attend the site to come up with a safety plan.
NOR-EX had previously tested the ice at the exact location where the machine fell through, and found that it had a thickness of more than 18 inches. That was considered adequate.
At the moment, Murchison said there is a plan underway to recover the machine, which will likely involve divers attaching winches. Work on the bridge is currently stalled.
Andrew Robulack, a spokesperson for the Yukon Workers Compensation Health and Safety Board, said the board has asked that “the site be closed pending an investigation trying to identify the cause of the incident.”
Robulack said there’s no timeline for when the investigation will be complete, but the board wants to make sure the site is safe before it allows work to proceed.
This is the second year in a row the Yukon government has had problems constructing an ice bridge for West Dawsonites to use in order to cross the river.
In January 2018, the government spent $120,000 on “spray technology” to spray the open river with a water cannon in the hopes of building up ice. This failed and the project was scrapped after a week.
At the time, West Dawson residents built their own footpath at a different point on the river by using a dead tree and some rope to form a barrier that jammed up any ice floating down the river. This was successful.
This year, the government spent $200,000 on a plan to install a boom across the river.
Before the snowcat sunk on Jan. 22, Murchison said a second boom was installed and some spray ice was used to promote ice formation. He said there was headway being made at the time. Now though, with a massive chunk of ice missing, he’s not sure what will happen.
“One of the messages we’ve given as we headed into bridge construction is with the changes we’ve seen in the river, even with the contractor retained to build the ice bridge, there’s no certainty that the ice bridge will be constructed,” he said.
Murchison said alternate sites had been considered at earlier stages in the planning process, but each one posed challenges around land tenure and the length of the routes.
He said there’s currently no plan to re-consider those sites now, this late in the season.
Murchison noted that West Dawson residents have once again made an ice foot bridge of their own, by using a chainsaw to cut loose a section of ice, which floated down the river and jammed between the banks, creating a path.
Murchison said it’s a great idea, but there are concerns around safety.
“If you look at what happened with us, with testing and a plan … we still had a failure.”
He said it’s important to keep in mind that it can be variable and risky to cross the river.
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