Federal wastewater regulations far from N.L. reality

Municipalities struggling to find way to meet legal requirements


Published on August 18, 2016

As you read this, Newfoundland and Labrador is releasing raw sewage and “undertreated” sewage into the environment. The waste is running from pipes into freshwater lakes and along the coast.

Even before new regulations for wastewater were introduced under the Fisheries Act in 2012, communities were looking for money to add wastewater infrastructure.

As it stands now, according to mayors and community advocates, the demand appears unmanageable.

Currently operating under a regulatory grace period (with the exact amount of time still determined by Environment Canada in most cases), municipalities are seeking some kind of intervention.

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At the end of Lower Road in Torbay, a large sign alerts visitors of a sanitary sewer outfall about 200 metres from shore.

A pair of tourists were having a late lunch on the rocky beach Wednesday, looking out to the “bubble” where seabirds were gathered — a visible sign of the $10-million to $15-million infrastructure challenge facing the community.

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Mayor Ralph Tapper said the dollar figure (recently estimated by consultants evaluating various wastewater treatment options) would only cover primary sewage treatment and require an additional $500,000 a year — every year — from the town of about 8,000 people for operating costs.

“It’s an undertaking,” he said, uncertain if they might still need more, even if they can secure that much.

The town — like many in the province — is hoping to cost-share the work and has applied for support.

At the same time, Environment Canada has yet to say exactly what the town must have and when. Areas are being classified for low, medium and high pollution risk, with deadlines for meeting standards set for 2040, 2030 or 2020 respectively.

Whatever comes, only about 40 per cent of the community is on the town sewer line, Tapper noted.

“That makes it more difficult. The question is, who pays for the town’s share?”

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In Wabush, Mayor Colin Vardy was disappointed but not deterred when his town was not named a recipient of some of the $150 million in provincial-federal funding for municipal projects in early July.

A mining town with an inactive mine, Wabush has needed to kickstart an idle wastewater treatment plant in its industrial park since before the new Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations were introduced.

Vardy said getting the plant up and running will finally stop raw sewage from running into Little Wabush Lake, located between Wabush and neighbouring Labrador City. And about $15 million is needed to make it all happen.

“My main concern right now is to get primary (waste) treatment and just basically the separation of solids and liquids at our plant, so we don’t have the solids and the toilet paper and all that going straight out into a lake, entirely untreated,” he said, calling the current situation a black eye for the community.

As for the looming federal regulations, he does not know if Environment Canada will require anything more from the town, or when.

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Labrador City received a commitment for cost-shared funding earlier this year. Mayor Karen Oldford sees it as a good start.

Like Wabush and Torbay, it is uncertain when the regulatory grace period will end for the town, she said.

She noted the funding announced for Labrador City is not for its main system and instead for a smaller, secondary system and pipe work.

“We’re estimating, based on what records and reports we have, it could be upwards of $30 million to do the main plant to meet that standard,” she said.

Oldford is also chair of the Atlantic regional caucus in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and said Labrador City had been setting aside money for years to try to cover the heavy infrastructure costs. Not everyone did the same.

“For a lot of the smaller communities that have one or fewer staff, many of them were very late off the mark in getting moving on trying to address this issue,” she said.

“And if you haven’t got clean drinking water, you’re concentrating more on that than you’re concentrating on wastewater regulations.”

•••

Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) is looking to meet with minister Judy Foote to discuss the wastewater demands, thankful action has not yet been taken against communities that have missed deadlines for certain outfall testing and paperwork.

“At some point, the regulations are the regulations and if you’re not meeting them, there are going to be some sort of consequences,” MNL) CEO Craig Pollett said.

He said exact figures are not available, but a best guess is about $400 million is needed in the province to bring wastewater infrastructure up to snuff.

“To give you some perspective on that, between ourselves and the province and the feds, when they’re involved, in any (average) year we’ll spend $80 million on (municipal) infrastructure. That’s everything we do: roads, drinking water, buildings, whatever,” he said.

He gave credit for the financial support announced for municipalities so far in 2016.

“It’s great. We needed it desperately,” he said. “But the scale of our situation is such that’s not going to fix it.”

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Of course, some municipalities are without wastewater concerns.

“We don’t have a treatment plant. We don’t have a problem,” said Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove Mayor John Kennedy, reached by phone Tuesday. “Our entire town’s unserviced. And that’s the way we plan on keeping it.”

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com