Wastewater upgrade needs $200 million and time

St. John’s, Mount Pearl, Paradise in tight spot under new regulations

Published on August 12, 2016

The Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Plant off Southside Road in St. John’s is a primary treatment facility. The city needs to build a new, $200-million secondary-treatment facility beside it, by the end of 2020, if it wants to meet federal environmental regulations.

Specific amounts have yet to be committed in support of the project by both the provincial and federal governments, leaving the City of St. John’s (as well as the City of Mount Pearl and Town of Paradise, who share in the wastewater system) in a tight spot for now.

“If we don’t meet those guidelines, then we’re in contravention of the law. So this is an important project and it’s a major project,” said St. John’s Coun. Danny Breen, sitting down with The Telegram and deputy city manager responsible for public works, Lynnann Winsor, at the city depot off Blackmarsh Road this week.


$150M for N.L. infrastructure

‘I wouldn’t swim in it’  (2013)

To put the capital cost in perspective, consider the joint provincial-federal press conference in July, announcing about $150 million in support for 142 different water, wastewater and public-transit projects in Newfoundland and Labrador. The secondary wastewater facility for St. John’s would eat up all of that cash in one shot.

In September 2015, while on the campaign trail, now-prime minister Justin Trudeau said a Liberal-led government would contribute the federal share needed for the wastewater treatment project in St. John’s. But that funding is not yet in place.

Meanwhile, “the province will continue to work with the federal government and the city to explore funding options,” according a spokeswoman for the Department of Municipal Affairs, in an emailed response to questions.

The back and forth on cost-sharing continues behind the scenes, with the city admitting a formal application for funding has yet to be made under the existing government infrastructure programs, because the project does not fit in the boxes, so to speak.

 “All previous funding programs, had we chose to apply under those, would not have been large enough and we would not have been able to undertake any other work,” Winsor stated. “In essence this project is of such magnitude that the other funding programs are not large enough.”

At this point, the city is working with the City of Mount Pearl and the Town of Paradise to request the wastewater project be treated as having regional and even national importance, for support under the Building Canada Fund.

And while the idea is being considered, everyone remains on the clock.

The Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations were introduced under the federal Fisheries Act in 2012. The regulations were phased in, coming into force Jan. 1, 2015. Those places not able to meet the standard then were issued “transitional authorizations,” with the federal government evaluating wastewater samples and system profiles to dictate HIGH, MEDIUM or LOW-risk locations. Depending on the category, communities were given until 2020, 2030 or 2040 to upgrade their wastewater treatment and meet standards. 

Winsor said the new system for St. John’s has to be up and running smoothly by Dec. 31, 2020 — less than five years out.

Last year, a couple of city staff members went to Ontario to check into treatment technologies, to see what would be reliable, but no decisions have been made yet on what will be used. Project estimates are still rough, a design must be drawn up, wastewater experts must be consulted, there is engineering work required, regulatory assessments are required, the area around the existing plant must be excavated, there is construction (including tie-in to the existing facility), there is commissioning.

How long will it take with cash in hand?

“It’s hard to say,” Winsor said. “I’m thinking at least five years.”

Apart from capital costs and timeline, Breen said operating costs for the facility remain a concern. There are chemical costs and maintenance costs. There is the cost of power, at a point when power rates are about to skyrocket.

The city already has a list of an estimated $1.2-billion in capital projects to address — street paving, sidewalks, water mains, storm sewer, sanitary sewer, recreation facilities and more.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the wastewater regulations are meant to address the more than 150-billion litres of untreated and undertreated sewage entering Canadian waters every year, referring online to that reality as “an environmental, human health and economic issue.”

The secondary treatment will bring down counts for total suspended solids (otherwise known as non-filterable residue) and biochemical oxygen demand (an indicator of minute organic matter in water). A chlorine residual count is also a target of the regulations, but a non-issue for St. John’s under its existing system, according to Breen.

When the new wastewater regulations were first proposed, it was estimated 185 of 186 municipalities reviewed in this province would require system upgrades to come into line with the secondary-level treatment standards. Following some changes, excluding the smallest communities, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimated between 40 and 70 municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador would need funding for upgrades.

The province did not have a firm estimate available on overall costs to come. A statement noted it is expected costs will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 20 years.