Some parts of St. John’s harbour are cleaner than others such as this place near the small boat basin on the south side. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe says he’s completely satisfied that city staff did not attempt to mislead the Telegram about pollution levels in the harbour.
“I’d be very upset if you were saying that the city staff were deliberately misleading you,” O’Keefe said. “I think they’ve gone out of their way on all levels to give you all the information that you’ve asked for.”
Two weeks ago, The Telegram requested information on water quality in the harbour, and whether or not things have improved since the Riverhead sewage treatment plant on Southside Road came online in 2009.
The Telegram was provided with a single number by Jennifer Mills, communications officer for the city: “A comparison of total coliforms (bacteria) in 2008 versus 2012 shows a 98 per cent reduction at the Riverhead outfall.”
The Telegram requested more information, asking for raw testing data.
“Can I have all the raw data? The numbers from all the sampling locations for each of the sampling times in the years from 2008 to 2012?” a reporter for The Telegram asked. “Does the city test for anything other than coliforms? Can I get the data on that too?”
Initially, The Telegram was told that to get raw data on pollution levels from the city, the newspaper would have to submit an access to information request, because that data was only available in 7,000 lab reports, totalling more than 50,000 sheets of paper.
After The Telegram submitted the access to information request, Mills called the newsroom and offered spreadsheets of water quality testing data for 2008 and 2012.
The spreadsheets would be provided on the condition that The Telegram withdraw its access to information request.
A subsequent analysis of those spreadsheets indicate that while bacteria levels in the harbour have dropped dramatically, ammonia and nitrogen levels have all increased, and phosphorus, Ph levels and salinity are basically unchanged.
In an interview on Friday, Mills said that the problem was that The Telegram didn’t ask about those pollutants.
“You told me you wanted to do a good story about Riverhead, and Riverhead’s impact on the harbour. Riverhead’s impact on the harbour. So we gave you a number that showed Riverhead’s impact on the harbour. Riverhead has no impact on ammonia, or phosphorus or anything else,” she said.
Mills also said that when The Telegram asked for “raw data” on water quality, city staff interpreted that as lab reports, which are only in paper copies. The numbers, on the other hand, get put into spreadsheets and once that happens, Mills said it’s no longer “raw” data.
“To us, the raw data is the lab reports,” she said. “Taking something out of the lab report and transcribing it into an Excel spreadsheet is ultimately altering the data. The raw data is what we get from the lab.”
Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary has been advocating for transparency at city hall for a while, and she said the whole situation seems problematic to her.
“I’m astounded, honestly, that it would be such a difficult process to get some statistics about how we’re doing with our wastewater treatment,” O’Leary said. “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to have a transference of information.”
O’Leary said in the four years since she was first elected, she’s seen a push within the city bureaucracy to limit public access to information.
“In my short time of four years, I have seen a complete move towards diminishing access of information at the city, and I have great issues with it,” she said. “I think that as representatives of the public, it is imperative that we have a more transparent, engaged process.”
O’Keefe, who is also running for re-election as mayor, said he’s satisfied that St. John’s is already the most open and transparent government in the province.
“Being transparent is one of our key corporate values and as a city our goal is to listen to our residents and be accessible and transparent as a government,” O’Keefe said, in a statement emailed to The Telegram. “We take great pride in the fact that we are an open municipality, if not the most open and transparent level of government in this province, including our provincial government.”