Wastewater bill comes due

N.L. towns now being dealt with by Environment Canada enforcement

Published on September 14, 2016

You can try to ignore them, but federal regulations don’t just go away, and wastewater rules introduced by the federal government under the Conservatives have caught up with Newfoundland and Labrador.

Federal and provincial politicians left the problem squarely in the hands of municipalities here, where it has been said by many mayors, councilors and staff that there is no ability to manage the required infrastructure spending. But some municipalities have also made minimal efforts to understand and tackle the spending required.

And here come the consequences.

“As it stands right now, if you don’t follow the regulations, you don’t get any gas tax. We were sent that letter, along with numerous communities in the province,” said St. Anthony Mayor Ernest Simms, speaking with The Telegram this week.

He said his understanding is the money will be released if towns show they are spending to meet the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations.

“You’re really spending money on something new when you don’t have enough to do the things you’ve done all along,” Simms said, adding he is not pleased with the current state of affairs, considering the ongoing demand for cash for roads, recreation and other needs.

St. Anthony is home to 19 of the province’s 742 — mostly untreated and undertreated — wastewater outfalls, according to a database developed by the provincial Department of Environment (the mayor’s count runs higher). The town of roughly 2,700 people is just now into testing three main outfalls to see if they meet the threshold requiring more treatment, including at least 100 cubic metres of wastewater a day in outflow.

The mayor estimated new infrastructure, if required, would cost at least $3 million — more than the town’s entire annual budget.

Despite any previous reports, and confusion within local municipalities reached by The Telegram over the past several weeks, the federal wastewater rules are in full effect and have been since Jan. 1, 2015.

This province is full of delinquents.

Willy Wonka offered five golden tickets for entry into his chocolate factory. For Newfoundland and Labrador, The Telegram has learned, only three of the province’s 297 municipalities were issued a grace period on wastewater infrastructure by the federal government (what are known as “transitional authorizations,” extending enforcement deadlines to 2020, 2030 or 2040). The winners were St. John’s, Gander and Springdale.

All other cases, where applications were apparently never made, are now in the hands of Environment Canada enforcement. They are being dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Some communities have systems and outfalls not handling enough wastewater to be subject to new requirements. But neither the federal nor the provincial government can say, even now, exactly how many need to be addressed.

Tracking municipal sewage is a new thing. Systems were to be registered with the federal department before the latest regulations kicked in, but the towns did not do as required.

“We have some enforcement officers going in Newfoundland. Because we’re not sure that municipalities are even kind of registered to the electronic reporting system. So I’m not sure even what the numbers are of municipalities,” confirmed Caroline Blais, Environment Canada’s director of forest products and Fisheries Act division, speaking to The Telegram by phone.

A handful of municipal wastewater systems have sewage treatment to the required level in place. Most don’t. A rough estimate provided from a provincial source was about 230 will ultimately require more infrastructure under the federal regulations.

There have been hopes expressed at the municipal and provincial level of more transitional authorizations — golden tickets — being issued, to spread out the funding requirements and avoid enforcement measures.

“The period where they can apply for a transitional authorization, that’s in the regs. It’s done, it’s done. To change the date, that would mean to reopen the regs, go back to Parliament and I don’t think that’s in the cards,” Blais said, when asked about the possibility of towns receiving an extension to meet the requirements.

But there has also been no crackdown. If they so choose, federal enforcement officers (two based in the province) can recommend charges, citing Fisheries Act violations.

To date, they have opted to work with communities, reminding them of requirements under the law, getting them registered, issuing stipulations for their progress.

In Corner Brook, Mayor Charles Pender said his city submitted documentation for a transitional authorization, but heard nothing back. There has been more recent back and forth with the federal government, but the city is ultimately looking at 2020 as a target date to meet wastewater demands, he said.

There are only two problems with that: the city does not officially have until 2020 and, even if it was granted, Corner Brook is not in a financial position to get to where it needs to be by then.

A sewer levy has been collected for at least a decade, the mayor said, with about $6 million available for next steps. But the rough price tag for a required wastewater treatment plant is $60 million to $90 million.

“Being ready for 2020, technically it would be a challenge. Financially, it’s probably an impossibility unless something drastic changes with both the provincial and federal governments and they actually come out and say, ‘Here’s the money to do it,’” Pender said.

The city was recently awarded some joint funding under the new Clean Water and Wastewater Fund — to help with a $10-million effort to separate the sewer mains into storm and sanitary lines.

Even if the province’s former premier did not have mayors coming to him on wastewater infrastructure before he left the top job (the regulations were notably in effect before then), he would have understood the cost and time pressures from his own experience as a councillor and, later, Member of the House of Assembly representing Topsail-Paradise.

When an existing wastewater plant serving Topsail failed, reverting to a pump for raw sewage, Paul Davis was part of the response.

“To replace Topsail’s treatment plant itself, under today’s regulations, if I remember, was going to be somewhere in the $40-million to $50-million range, which is a huge amount of money for a piece of infrastructure,” he said in a recent interview.

The town went on to find a workaround. Another wastewater treatment plant in the community could handle more inflow, so it became about piping. It was still, by Davis’s recollection of the estimate, a roughly $16-million job.

And there are not too many existing treatment plants with spare capacity in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The cost to go 100 metres between houses instead of 50 feet is significantly different,” he noted, highlighting the economy of scale in larger centres.

The Town of Conception Bay South currently has a wastewater outfall requiring monitoring into 2017 and is looking at additional treatment infrastructure.

“At this stage in the process, the town cannot determine the associated cost required to meet the new regulations,” stated an emailed response to questions.

Unlike in other parts of the country, such as the similarly strapped coastal jurisdiction of British Columbia, this province does not require five-year infrastructure plans (or more) from municipalities.