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Working together on wastewater

123RF Photo
123RF Photo

Opportunity for shared approach in fixing, funding municipal wastewater treatment in province

Wastewater regulations are coming down the pipes for Newfoundland and Labrador and the province’s municipalities are trying to determine how to tackle the problem at a price they can afford.

Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador Chief Executive Officer Craig Pollett says the province has 276 municipalities. Of that number, nearly half are required to comply with the federal Wastewater System Effluent Regulations as they release more than 100 cubic metres of influent into the ocean every day.

Pollett says the biggest challenges facing municipalities are a lack of understanding around existing regulations, what is required to comply and the money to make it all happen.

A small number of wastewater treatment companies including Biomaxx Environmental Newfoundland and Labrador are working with municipalities on cost-friendly solutions, but Pollett says more are needed to help solve the problem.

“We need other options — other players to come in and help us. There may be dozens of other options in the market, but those solutions providers aren’t yet in Newfoundland and Labrador,” he says.

A hefty price tag

Steve Priestley is the Vice-President of Biomaxx Environmental’s Newfoundland and Labrador branch and has worked with around 100 municipalities across the country on managing wastewater infrastructure. 

He arrived in the province with his company five years ago to consult with municipalities on building wastewater treatment plants and says there is currently raw sewage from more than 150 outfalls in Newfoundland and Labrador draining into the ocean.

“About 90 per cent of the municipalities do not have treatment of their wastewater. These communities simply did not know how much sewage was going into the ocean,” he says.

Portugal Cove Director of Financial Operations and Acting Town Manager Tony Pollard says his town has been compliant since 2004 when it entered into the Multi Year Capital Works Program, a provincial investment program that helps fund large-scale municipal infrastructure through a cost-sharing agreement with a municipality, with the province assuming the larger, with municipalities covering around one quarter of the cost, and the province the other portion.

“Anybody who has this on their horizon to be done in terms of wastewater might need to do a couple of years’ worth of such multi-year capital arrangements to accumulate the funding to actually go do these things. Otherwise, they would need more shared funding [from all levels of government],” says Pollard.

But Pollard says most municipalities cannot afford the engineering processes required to get their own compliance work off the ground as building a wastewater treatment system would incur costs like site testing, engineering design plans, the request for proposal and tendering process and the treatment system itself — all of which he says can come with a hefty price tag.

Pollett says the estimated dollar amount needed to build wastewater infrastructure in Newfoundland and Labrador that are up to standard is around $600 million because it would mostly be starting from scratch.

“We only have $100 million a year for all municipal infrastructure, so the idea that we could spend $600 million means we’d have to stop all other infrastructure spending for 10 years,” he says.

Building awareness

Of the province’s 276 municipalities, Pollard estimates fewer than five are currently compliant.

Now, Priestley estimates he is working with around 80 per cent of the province’s municipalities to regularly monitor outfalls and submit data to Environment Canada, as per the federal regulations.

Only three municipalities have been granted transitional authorisation for a grace period until they must be compliant — Gander, St. John’s and Springdale compliance dates range from 2020 to 2040 — based on their collected data. The same regulations state all others with more than 100 cubic metres of influent per day must be compliant now.

“Everybody else has to be compliant right now, and has had to have been for the last four years. They are therefore technically breaking the law,” says Pollett.

The Professional Municipal Administrators association led information workshops over the past few years to further municipal employees’ awareness on the topic and saw an increase in understanding, but Pollett says more work is still needed to remind many that these regulations are serious.

“We’re in unknown territory here, and it’s scary,” he says.

As municipalities monitor influent levels, Priestley says his company is working with them on cost-effective plans to developing wastewater treatment infrastructure. His approach is to move towards package wastewater treatment plants at the outfalls themselves instead one central plant that would cost millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades.

“There isn’t much population density and one central system would not be practical. So we eliminated that idea and are using a smaller plant directly at each pipe,” says Priestley.

Pollett says there is a huge opportunity for more companies to work on such solutions in Newfoundland where their services are currently invaluable and much-needed. He says an even more pressing reason is that there is little time remaining for many to become compliant.

“There’s a huge role for these firms because of the technical expertise that they have … but there aren’t enough firms in the province to do the work within the time frame these regulations require,” says Pollett.

What could help

Pollett says regulation changes could help provide framework for municipalities to follow through to compliance and give them the time they need to finance and build necessary infrastructure.

He says the biggest thing that would help is a cost-sharing plan including all levels of government to help Newfoundland and Labrador municipalities — most of whom have an extremely small tax base — afford the process.

He says a shared plan outlining a new timeline would also alleviate the huge pressure these municipalities are currently under and would provide an opportunity to plan investments and possible regional collaborations.

“This is probably among the biggest municipal infrastructure projects this province has ever seen,” says Pollett.

“Most members are honestly trying to do this, but they just need more time.”

Pollett says the limited number of municipal employees in many Newfoundland and Labrador municipalities meant employees wouldn’t have had the ability or time to monitor their influent outfall output without the help of Priestley and other wastewater companies. He also says this lack of personnel means once the infrastructure needed to become compliant is built, there is a concern that municipalities will not have the manpower required to monitor and maintain it.

He says their work preparing reports to send to Environment Canada has been invaluable since municipalities do not often understand the technical jargon.

“They’ve been helping people understand what the regulations actually say because they’re written for a technical understanding. And so there is a continuing role for them to play as we shift from understanding, to planning, to actually treating the sewer systems,” says Pollett.

Pollett says it’s important to recognize these municipalities sincerely want to meet the wastewater compliance regulations, but that without the help of such wastewater companies, they are lost.

“Nobody disagrees with the goal – but the fact is with the way current regulations are … means we won’t reach it,” says Pollett.

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