Province quietly tackles Parlee Beach's 'bacteria reservoir'

The province is moving ahead with work to replace an underground pipe at Parlee Beach suspected of leaking sewage in the sand, but the issue won’t be dealt with in time for the 2018 tourist season.

Leaky sewage pipe at provincial park to be replaced after internal emails raise alarm

Without much fanfare, work began this spring to replace sewage pipes, dating back to the 1970s at Parlee Beach Provincial Park. (CBC)

The province is moving ahead with its $1.5 million plan to replace an underground pipe suspected of leaking sewage in the sand at Parlee Beach — but the issue won't be resolved in time for the 2018 tourist season.

Internal correspondence obtained by residents through a right to information request and shared with CBC News shows government officials were concerned last summer the provincial park's own infrastructure could be a cause of fecal contamination in the water.

Jacques Paynter, the main engineer on the file, said he wanted to alert deputy ministers of this potentially "serious" problem, the documents show.

Unlike the rest of Shediac, the sewage system at the popular tourist spot is not overseen by the Greater Shediac Sewerage Commission. Instead, it's managed independently by New Brunswick's Department of Tourism.

Emails show engineer Jacques Paynter, hired to lead the Parlee Beach steering committee, feels the sewage issue should be addressed as soon as possible. (CBC)

The park system handles waste from the beach canteens, restaurant and washrooms, through a series of underground pipes that, in theory, bring untreated wastewater to the treatment plant.

But a report commissioned by the province in May of 2017, suggested a sewage leak, since only a low volume of untreated wastewater was making it all the way to a lift station on its way to the sewage plant.

Sewage in the sand

Sewage was likely leaking into the sand along the way, the report said.

"I've reviewed the report. Not a very good situation, with serious implications," said Paynter in an email to Martin MacMullin, the province's parks manager, when the report was completed in June 2017.

Paynter said his main concern was the leak was contaminating the beach, and the sand was acting as a "long-term reservoir for bacteria."

A study of the Parlee Beach Provincial Park sewage system concluded there were likely sewage leaks into the sand. (CBC)

"Over time the bacteria can become naturalized and become a permanent problem," Paynter said in his email to officials with the Department of Environment.

"Somehow this should be addressed during the swimming season, or we may potentially have many 'not suitable for swimming' advisories."

However, the issue wasn't addressed last summer.

There were eight 'no-swimming advisories' at Parlee Beach related to high fecal bacteria counts in the summer of 2017. (CBC)

In 2017, a no-swimming advisory was issued eight times at Parlee Beach because of fecal bacteria counts that were too high for young children or elderly visitors to go in the water.

System is old: province

The urgency and concern for water quality in Paynter's email is in stark contrast with what the Department of Environment told CBC News on Friday.

A spokesperson said that while "the province does not disagree with the report," which was why steps were taken to install a new sewage system, the Parlee Beach working group concluded the park's sewage was not a source of fecal contamination in the water.

Anthony Doiron, communications officer for the department, did not explain how that conclusion was reached.

 "The system is old and could potentially become a source if it does not continue to operate as intended," he said.

After much controversy over how it dealt with poor water quality at Parlee Beach, the province adopted the Canadian Recreational Water Quality Guidelines for the 2017 beach season. (CBC)

The report said pipes in the sand dunes date back to 1974.

Doiron said work to replace the park's sewage system started this spring but would only be completed in the fall after the park closes. 

The intent is to connect the Parlee Beach system to the municipal system operated by the Shediac commission.

'Potent risk'

The report also revealed a residence somehow became connected to the Parlee Beach sewage infrastructure, and it needed to be disconnected as soon as possible.

Although it did appear to be a seasonal home, if people lived there during the winter, it could result in 200,000 litres of untreated wastewater ending up in the coastal wetland, the department was told.

Parlee Beach's sewage system is shut down during the off-season.

Starting in 2017, water sampling for fecal bacteria was performed five times a week at Parlee Beach. (CBC)

Internal correspondence within the Department of Environment also shows officials had considered the park's sewage infrastructure to be a "potent risk."

They had already been trying to secure funds to address the problem, but the $1.5 million price tag from the report far exceeded what they were prepared to spend.

The provincial park opened for the season on May 25, and water quality samples taken before the opening showed the water was clean so far.

In 2016 and 2017, a CBC investigation revealed issues of poor water quality at New Brunswick's crown jewel of tourism were first brought to the government's attention 20 years ago, with attempts to conceal the problem through the years through a made in New Brunswick water quality rating program, constructed to avoid the "shock of a beach closure."

Former Health Minister Victor Boudreau had disputed claims park staff failed to respect the provinces' rules on water testing at Parlee Beach. (CBC)

The province also failed to respect its own rules for water testing, which it eventually admitted, after initially disputing the claims.

The provincial steering committee, which spent the past year and a half studying causes of fecal contamination at the popular beach, concluded in a report last month more studies were needed to pinpoint an exact cause.

About the Author

Gabrielle Fahmy

Reporter

Gabrielle Fahmy is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been a journalist with the CBC since 2014.

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