'I wouldn't swim in it'

James McLeod
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St. John’s harbour contains less bacteria, but higher levels of chemicals

St. John’s harbour contains less bacteria, but higher levels of chemicals, The Telegram has found. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

It’s been four years since the Riverhead sewage treatment plant came online, but some pollution levels are still on the rise in St. John’s harbour.

Coliform bacteria testing done by the city of St. John’s shows that, on average, levels have dropped by more than 90 per cent between 2008 and 2012.

Levels of ammonia in the water, on the other hand, have gone up by 70 per cent over the same time period, and there’s been no decrease in nitrogen or phosphorus in the water. Ph levels — a measure of acidity — have stayed the same, too, and testing shows that the water has become cloudier.

St. John’s Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff, who chairs the regional waste water committee, said the bottom line is that nobody expected the Riverhead facility to be a perfect solution.

“A lot of the visible floatable lumps of you-know-what are gone. Still, I wouldn’t swim in it, but we didn’t ever expect to,” she said. “From a public health issue, it's OK right now, and we are moving to a situation where it will be much more OK, but it’s not a cheap solution.”

Altogether, the harbour cleanup project has cost more than

$171 million; the Riverhead treatment plant on Southside Road cost $83 million alone to build, and on top of all the capital costs, it’s $3.7 million a year to operate the facility.

Moreover, as it stands right now, the city is still dumping 30-40 per cent of its sewage into the harbour untreated at the Temperance Street outfall.

There have been ongoing issues with the liners at the Riverhead digester tanks; the city is waiting until those problems are fixed — hopefully early next year — before flipping the switch and sending the Temperance Street sewage over to Riverhead.

But even when all of that is squared away, it won’t really do anything to help the nitrogen and ammonia levels in the water.

The Riverhead plant is only a primary treatment facility, which means it filters out the physical grit and chunks of stuff, but it doesn’t do anything to eliminate chemicals that are dissolved in the water.

“Secondary treatment is more of a biological, chemical process where you actually remove things that are dissolved in the water. That’s when you start to treat for ammonia and phosphorus,” said Deanne Kincade, manager of the Riverhead plant.

“Right now we don’t do that, and we can’t expect to remove ammonia as part of a secondary process.”

Kincade said in the grand scheme of things, the levels of nitrogen in the harbour are fairly low. They do regular testing of the treatment plant effluent to meet federal regulations, and the measure of nitrogen that they focus on is well below the levels that would kill fish.

“The good thing about Newfoundland’s wastewater is that it’s very dilute and we don’t have a lot of industry, so we’re not getting a lot of things like metals or ammonia compared to (other cities in Canada).” she said.

The Northeast Avalon Atlantic Coastal Action Program (NAACAP) — formerly known as St. John’s Harbour ACAP — spent a long time lobbying for efforts to clean up the harbour.

Phoebe Metcalfe, environmental technologist with NAACAP, said things are getting better, but people can’t be satisfied with how far things have come yet.

“I would like to think that it is better. It is a first step in making it better with the primary treatment plant down there, but there still is, like I said, lots to be done,” she said. “A lot of people think this plant is here, everything is wonderful, it does it all. Some people don’t realize that it is only primary treatment or that there is still an outfall that’s going in (the harbour.)”

One way or another, eventually the city is going to have to do even more to clean up the harbour.

Federal regulations are forcing all municipalities to install secondary treatment. Duff said depending on how much nitrogen, organic content, chlorine and suspended solids are in the wastewater effluent, municipalities will have to have secondary treatment in place by 2020 or 2030.

Duff said the city’s waste water is “just on the cusp” of being clean enough that we can put it off to 2030, which buys more time and hopefully makes secondary treatment cheaper for local taxpayers.

“We could, as soon as 2020, be forced into a secondary treatment option with huge expense,” she said. “Our immediate issue is to try to get our levels down below the mark that forces us to do this by 2020 not 2030.”


Twitter: TelegramJames

Geographic location: Temperance Street, Southside Road, Newfoundland Canada

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Recent comments

  • Sylvia J. Wilson
    August 07, 2013 - 22:23

    I realize that my prior submission if full of Scientific gobbledy-gook, but in the end it means it all smells the same no matter how you want to analyze it. You dont need to be a rocket scientist to know it's not good for people, the ocean or aquatic life. C'mon people, DEMAND that the Federal Government clean up their act and pay for secondary sewage systems all across Canada.

  • Sylvia J. Wilson
    August 07, 2013 - 22:19

    Microbial Pollution: A Key Factor to Consider in the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluents from the "Smallest" of Sewage Outfalls J. F. Payne, L. L. Fancey, L. Park, C. A. Andrews, L. Cole, B. French and T. Thoms Science, Oceans and Environment Branch Department of Fisheries and Oceans P.O. Box 5667 St. John's NL Ale 5Xl 2004 Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences No. 2538 Results for contaminated sites, (Table 2) in Harbour Grace, Carbonear, Harbour Breton and Victoria/S almon Cove were consistent with contamination from various levels ofraw domestic sewage. At Harbour Grace, sediment samples HG-Ol to HG-09 were taken in a transect along the middle of the entire harbour basin with HG-Ol furthest towards shore and HG-09 furthest seaward (Fig. 3). Sporulative anaerobe counts indicated a consistent level of contamination ranging from 3800 to 7300 CFU g wet weight". Samples taken at four outfall sites (HGOTF#1 to HGOTF#4) had sporulative anaerobe counts ranging from 90 to 9600 CFU g wet weight". The sediment sample from site HGOTF #4 gave the highest coliform and E.coli counts indicating recent sewage input. Visual inspection of the sample at the time of collection revealed obvious undissolved tissue paper and raw fecal material. http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/281534.pdf

  • Sylvia J. Wilson
    August 04, 2013 - 22:15

    Thank you James for "digging" this information out. I think I'll pass it on to the Anti-Sealing group. If they think the seals are being affected from it perhaps something will be done. The seals seem to be more important than people.

  • Sylvia J.
    August 04, 2013 - 22:12

    Sadly this doesn't seem to be much of an issue with anyone. Apparently Newfoundlanders ARE willing to accept this method of dumping their sewer.

  • California Pete from NFLD
    August 04, 2013 - 12:57

    I like the photo it dose not show any of those smelly brown stuff things floatin around on top the nice clan harbor water ! Have a nice smally day, may the wind be at your back.

  • here be fools
    August 04, 2013 - 09:33

    typical, typical, typical.. sold in the beginning as "the answer" but after it's built.. you didn't really expect this to work, did you?? lol, you gotta love politicians.

  • Gordon Gekko
    August 03, 2013 - 20:26

    It's an industrial port, not a public swimming pool. As long as it isn't full of floating turds and tampons and downtown doesn't smell like one big outhouse I say that's enough, I don't care about the water quality itself, I don't expect to drink from it. Get it to the point where we can shut down the other bubble and leave it that, don't upgrade that facility any more than absolutely necessary.

    • marine
      August 05, 2013 - 13:05

      It might be an industrial port, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be concerned about the quality of the water. Harbors like St.John's created dead zones in coastline areas, which is where aquatic life is most concentrated.

  • Sylvia J. Wilson
    August 03, 2013 - 12:44

    Thank you James McCloud for raising this important health issue. With the difficulties the Telegram had in obtaining information on this, you can appreciate how it's next to impossible for the average citizen to look into it. I find it rather curious though that whenever an issue of this type is raised (whether it's government, scientists etc.) the main concern seems to be the health of the fish not the people. It wouldn't surprise me that the lack of proper sewage in Newfoundland/Labrador isn't one of the main reasons for the high cancer rate. (I mean the people, not the fish).

  • Townie
    August 03, 2013 - 09:35

    What a joke you are Mrs.Duff "not a perfect solution" with the cost of that. the treatment plant it should be a perfect solution,still not up and working 100 percent.Maybe now you know why people bring in outside help.What a circus that's being ran at the City Hall.

  • P F Murphy
    August 03, 2013 - 07:57

    Well shoot ! And I thought it was all going through the primary process, while 30-40% still isn't. Who is going to see us through this situation with Nurse Duff retiring? Surely not the Yes Yes boys who are currently counting their corporate campaign donations for September. Oh well, the business community knows how to get the Council it wants and, I guess, I should throw the swimming trunks away as they probably won't fit me by the time we have pure water coming from the Riverhead processing facility of office towers. I guess we'll have to continue taking our lumps, eh?