Family unaware of pollution concern before eating caplin

Fish were rolling on Torbay beach

Published on June 26, 2013
A sign in front of Torbay Beach advises visitors to enjoy it at their own risk, but doesn’t mention the presence of a nearby sewer outfall. — Submitted photo

After a beautiful day catching and eating caplin at Torbay Beach with her husband and two small sons, Kelley Bromley-Brits learned from a friend that the town’s sewage was being pumped a couple of hundred feet from the beach.

“Around midnight I was talking to my friend about all the fish we caught, and she asked me where I had caught them,” Bromley-Brits said, referring to the family’s Sunday outing.

“I told her Torbay Beach and she said there was raw sewage pumped in there, and that she wouldn't eat them. ... I got such a horrible, sinking feeling. We'd all been in that water and eaten the fish; my toddler had eaten three all by himself. I felt terrible, like I had put my family in danger. I thought maybe I had missed a sign.”

Bromley-Brits called HealthLine, the provincial toll-free service offering 24-hour telephone access to registered nurses.

When she explained  the family had eaten caplin caught 200 feet from a sewage outflow, she said she was advised to watch for

E. coli infections and to look into preemptive vaccinations the next day.

“The next morning, instead of enjoying the Discovery Day holiday, we all went to the doctor, who thankfully squeezed us in,” Bromley-Brits said.

“It was recommended that we all get hepatitis vaccinations. I had had the vaccine before so I only had to have my titres checked, but my husband and two sons were advised to get the Twinrix vaccine. They all need three doses: one that day, one a month from now, and one six months from now. It's going to cost us $411, assuming I don’t need a booster shot.”

According to Health Canada, titres refer to the concentration level of antibodies, in this case those that protect against Hepatitis B.

This young mother was not the only one out of the know. A local Torbay wildlife photographer, who asked to have his name withheld, noted that caplin were rolling on the beach throughout the weekend, a rare event that found the shoreline more populated than usual.

“(People) were catching caplin, like there wasn’t anything wrong with the water. I think it was about two dozen people over the course of the day. There were dogs playing in the surf, and just general caplin-related activity,” the photographer said.

He also noted that the signage at the beach has recently changed; where the sign used to specify the presence of pollution, it currently reads simply “Public Notice: Enjoy our beach at your own risk.”

“The new sign led me to believe that (the beach’s pollution problem) was fixed,” the photographer said.

A few years ago, a crack in the sewer outfall had necessitated a cleanup and repair job, at which time Torbay Beach had signs which clearly indicated the sewage-related contamination. Now, though pollution has lowered to levels similar to those pre-break, according to the Town of Torbay, the sewage dumping system has not been changed.

“It’s still a sewer line 200 feet offshore, and there’s some concern that all is not well,” Torbay Mayor Robert Codner said.

This concern over contamination is relatively recent, though the sewage disposal system is not.

When the pipe was initially installed, “the norm was that sewage was getting dumped into the ocean, and people at the time, from the authorities that approved it to the towns, didn’t see any problems with it,” Codner said. “But that whole philosophy has changed, and you don’t do it any more. And what’s there now has to be cleaned up within certain time parameters.”

According to Codner, the timeline for wastewater regulation changes is still up in the air for the Town of Torbay.

The date has been on the horizon since federal Environment Minister Peter Kent outlined a national cleanup program in July 2012, and according to that program many similar sewage systems across the country will eventually need to be upgraded, but it is still unclear when the new regulations will hit Torbay.

“It is going to be a very expensive project,” Codner said. “We had a preliminary estimate back a few years ago, and I think it was coming in roughly around the same cost as the arena, so that was $12 million when it was constructed.

“We’re still waiting as to where we sit on the scale, if we’re one of the early ones that’s got to be done or maybe we can be put off until one of the later ones, then we’ve got to get the funding, then it’s design work. So you’re talking at best a few years down the road.”

Until the current sewage disposal system is overhauled, some degree of water pollution is unavoidable as raw sewage will continue to be dumped close to the shore.

Before attention to pollution was at the forefront of public consciousness, Codner said, people used to go down to the beach as if nothing was wrong.

“If I had known about the sewage, I would have waited for the caplin to come in on Middle Cove Beach,” Bromley-Brits said.

Sometimes, however, nature can be deceiving.

“When you’re at (Torbay) Beach the water is very clear and it looks very, very pure, but this may be a case of what you (can’t) see can hurt you,” the Torbay photographer said. “I would be curious to find out if anything was really wrong with the water, or if it’s just our perception.”