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On the brink in blackout

Toronto almost ran out of water, documents reveal
Ottawa, police, military left scrambling after power failure

Toronto Star - January 5, 2004
by Bruce Campion-Smith

OTTAWA — In the hours after last summer's blackout, Toronto nearly ran out of water.

As well:

  • The province's 911 system nearly crashed.

  • The military had trouble with key computer systems.

  • Emergency numbers for several federal agencies were out of service or they just rang unanswered.

Those are among the revelations from the massive power failure that darkened Ontario and much of the United States northeast on August 14, according to federal government documents obtained by the Star under the Access to Information Act.

The documents are a collection of e-mails, phone logs and reports from the defence department and the Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness, which together took the lead in handling the federal government's response to the blackout.

When the lights went out, federal emergency officials ran into trouble establishing contact with government departments.

For example, the power failure did more than knock Ontario's nuclear plants off-line. It left the nuclear watchdog in the dark, while phones at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission rang unanswered.

The number at Environment Canada's emergency centre didn't work, nor did the number at Public Works and Government Services, according to the federal office's log.

And while terror concerns were foremost in many minds, the emergency centre at the RCMP had just one person working, documents show.

The emergency centre at Canadian Security Intelligence Service wasn't activated at all, the reports say.

The 950 pages of documents also shed some insight into the biggest blunder of the night — then-defence minister John McCallum's claim that a fire at a Pennsylvania nuclear plant caused the blackout.

Officials with Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness (OCIPEP) knew almost two hours earlier that the information was likely false and sought to warn McCallum. "Advise that OCIPEP has no inform re nuclear plant fire. Advise against (Minister of National Defence) making any such reference pending confirmation," according to notes from the agency.

Yet McCallum made the claim to reporters anyway, apparently after getting bad information from his own advisers, providing a stark example of the fog of confusion that had settled on the darkened capital.

A U.S.-Canada task force would later pin the cause of the blackout on an Ohio power company.

The military suffered other problems too, according to a briefing note prepared for the deputy chief of defence staff a week after the crisis.

While the National Defence Command Centre did its job during the crisis, the blackout "demonstrated that the overall (Canadian Forces) command grid is extremely fragile, and few identified points of failure from Y2K and 9/11 events have been corrected," says the note prepared by Col. B. St-Laurent.

The note warns that the forces' communication and computer network is vulnerable to "similar disasters" and urged that "viable solutions be quickly implemented." The conclusions of the note were censored. It does say that despite the outage, national defence headquarters in Ottawa was able to stay in touch with Canadian troops abroad and maintain "command and control capability."

Yet heavily censored documents show that troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere were warned that computer systems would be shutting down because of the power failure. Other revelations contained in the documents include:

  • A decision by NORAD to put American and Canadian fighter jets on alert after the lights went out. While terrorism was quickly ruled out, two jets were scrambled from Washington-area air force base to patrol the skies as a precautionary measure, according to a defence department log.

  • An offer from Manitoba Hydro to supply 200 megawatts of power at the time of the crisis. Ontario hydro officials were so overwhelmed that the offer of help never got through.

  • A day after the lights went out, Toronto was meeting the demand for water, "but just barely," according to a provincial bulletin.

  • As well, Bell Canada was having trouble getting fuel for the back-up generators needed to keep the 911 emergency lines working. "This may impact on Bell's ability to maintain levels of service," the note says.

  • Bell Canada, CBC Toronto and Teleglobe all made calls to Industry Canada with urgent request for more fuel.

  • The petroleum industry proposed limiting motorists to $10 fill-ups to conserve depleted stocks of fuel. Industry officials instead asked drivers to delay their fill-ups as they struggled to get refineries up and working.

  • Air Canada president Robert Milton asked Alex Himmelfarb, the country's top bureaucrat, for the military's help in keeping the lights on at the airline's operations centre and his planes in the sky. The military was asked for a generator to supply power to the airline's centre at Pearson International Airport.

  • A call from a New York Times reporter in Albany to emergency officials in Ottawa asking whether "Canada's open-door immigration policy translates into terrorist threat to electrical grid." The hand-scribbled message says the reporter talked editors out of doing the story.

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