Province's interim solution for Winnipeg's waste treatment plant 'could be catastrophic,' city says

The city says there could be dire consequences if it complies with the province’s deadline to implement an interim plan to remove phosphorus from wastewater that ends up in Lake Winnipeg.

Province rejected city's request for more time to comply with environmental standards

The city said interim measures, called for by the province, designed to immediately reduce phosphorus output at the city's sewage treatment plant could have negative consequences that result in raw sewage being dumped into the city's rivers for months. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

The city says there could be dire consequences if it complies with the province's deadline to implement an interim plan to remove phosphorus from wastewater that ends up in Lake Winnipeg.

"If we don't do it properly, it could be catastrophic for the City of Winnipeg, our rivers and our lakes. So it's really important that we listen to the experts when we are looking at interim phosphorus removal," said Coun. Cindy Gilroy, chair of the standing policy committee on water and waste.

On Thursday, the Manitoba government announced it would not grant the City of Winnipeg a two-year extension to comply with its environmental licence that ordered the city to remove phosphorus from the waste stream at the North End Water Pollution Control Centre by the end of this year.

It also said it wasn't ready to commit to funding for the upgrade the treatment plant.

The city had asked for more time, citing a need for testing to be done on the impacts of increased use of ferric chloride, a chemical that could reduce phosphorus in the short term. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has suggested the use of ferric chloride as an interim measure, prior to the completion of upgrades to the North End plant.

"We believe we need this year, at a minimum, to look at the impacts but then we also need to secure funding. We do not have identified funding we need to come back to council and request funding to implement the interim measures, whatever they may be," said Geoff Patton, manager of the city's engineering services.

Geoff Patton, manager of engineering services in the city's water and waste department, said introducing too much ferric chloride into the sewage treatment plant could damage the existing biomass and kill off the bacteria that breakdown waste. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The province will instead force the city to take part in a new committee aimed at ensuring the work is completed. That committee will guide the city in implementing an interim phosphorus reduction strategy to commence by Feb. 1, 2020, as well as implementation of the upgrades.

But the city wants to test the additive before it's implemented in full to ensure that it is safe and will not have unintended consequences, like destroying the biological agents that help break down sewage.

Patton said that while ferric chloride is already used in part of the water treatment process, using it at the level required has not been properly tested.

"If we introduce this chemical in too great amounts we risk killing off the biomass and ending sewage treatment at the North End, West End and South End treatment plants, and causing this catastrophic failure —  a discharge of partially raw untreated sewage to the rivers," he said.

No funding without plan, no plan without funding

The North End Water Pollution Control Centre needs $1.8 billion in upgrades. The city said it has already committed to funding its share of Phase 1 of the project but is still waiting for the province to answer its initial funding request of $267 million.

In 2003, the provincial Clean Environment Commission recommended the city, province and Ottawa share the cost of Winnipeg's sewage treatment upgrades. So far, the city has borne most of the financial burden on its own.

Mayor Brian Bowman said if the province really wants to move forward on making improvements to phosphorus removal, it should commit to helping pay for it.

"The quickest way to accelerate things, and the best way to protect the health of the lake would be for the province of Manitoba to respond to the funding request for the North End sewage treatment plant that could have been announced yesterday and it was not," said Bowman.

Mayor Brian Bowman and Coun. Cindy Gilroy told media at City Hall Friday morning that implementing interim measures that could reduce phosphorus output at the North End Pollution Control Centre could have catastrophic consequences if it's not done carefully. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The province said Thursday it wasn't ready to commit to any dollar amount because there was no plan or construction timeline in place for the upgrades.

"Without a plan you can't actually properly budget for this project so for us to pre-empt with any dollar amount would be premature," said Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard.

Bowman said without knowing there is funding available the city can't develop a construction timeline.

"If we had that funding certainty we could provide a construction timeline, and construction certainty, which we know that they've requested and we understand was one of the primary reasons for the denial," said Bowman.

Water rates, municipal agreements could be impacted

Without securing funding from the province — and in turn having the province request funding from the federal government — the mayor said it could impact water and sewer rates within the city and beyond. 

"The implications on water rates would be significant and I can't underscore that enough," said Bowman.

Bowman also said that existing agreements with the municipalities of West St. Paul and Rosser, which use Winnipeg's sewage treatment plants, could also be called into question.

"We will have to reconsider and review other project loads on the system, so this includes possibly cancelling plans to accept the sewage from neighbouring municipalities," said Bowman.

Those other project loads also include recently announced economic developments, such the Burcon pea-processing plant and expansions to the Maple Leaf plant.

Cheryl Christian, the mayor of West St Paul, said the RM has decommissioned all of its regional wastewater treatment plants.

Cheryl Christian, the mayor of West St. Paul, says her community decommissioned its regional treatment plants, so it needs the city to accept its wastewater. (Submitted by Cheryl Christian )

If the city stopped accepting sewage from the community, it might force the RM to declare a state of emergency, she said, adding that she wouldn't be open to a rate hike. 

"We want to be competitive and affordable and we have a lot of people in our community on fixed income, and an increase in rate would be a significant hit," she said. 

For now, Christian said she's hoping the city and province can work out some kind of resolution. 

"We've done our part to make sure that we're compliant and we have a good partnership with the City of Winnipeg, and we're hoping that there can be some resolution here," she said. 

Bowman said the city will continue to work with province and the new committee but said he doesn't want to see any delays to implementing the city's plan for testing the additive. 

He also said he doesn't want to go ahead with any plan that could put the treatment plant at risk.

"We don't want to see raw sewage going into the rivers for months, that's just not something that should be acceptable to anyone and that is a risk that's been identified."

With files from Austin Grabish and Bartley Kives