Nfld. & Labrador

Municipalities looking for loopholes to avoid hefty bills under new wastewater rules

With dozens of N.L. towns unable to afford costly upgrades to wastewater treatment infrastructure, administrators are unofficially looking for ways to avoid hefty fines for non-compliance.

Municipalities looking for loopholes to avoid hefty bills

This is a raw sewage outfall in Corner Brook. (Submitted by ACAP Humber Arm)

With dozens of N.L. towns unable to afford costly upgrades to wastewater treatment infrastructure, administrators are unofficially looking for ways to avoid hefty fines for non-compliance with new federal rules.

Because so many towns can't afford new or upgraded systems, the rules have eased a bit, says Lewisporte town manager Brian Peckford, with directives from the federal fisheries minister that require more monitoring of wastewater.

"We had to start doing our flow metering and monitoring, because if you're over a certain threshold, you actually gotta get in and test the water quality. How much effluent and the nasty stuff is actually in the water," he said.

"Which we did, and we actually became compliant as per the ministerial direction. So, for right now, if a lot of towns follow that direction, I don't think you're going to see the Fisheries officers show up so often."

The new wastewater rules are part of a revamped federal Fisheries Act that came into effect in 2012. Communities requiring significant work on their treatment systems received extensions that allowed them to delay compliance until 2020, 2030 or 2040, depending on how much effluent they were dumping.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, many towns dump raw, untreated sewage right into the ocean or ponds and rivers, putting them on the 2020 compliance list.

Upgrading Lewisporte's system would cost an estimated $35 million, not counting the ongoing operation and maintenance costs. (Submitted by Lorne Hiscock)

The problem is, to bring every community water treatment system up to regulation, the total cost will come to an estimated $600 million, according to Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador. There's little financial help from Ottawa to pay for the work, local councils say, and they can't afford it.

Officially, towns that don't meet the regulations can see their managers fined up to $500,000 or jailed for up to two years, and some officials have already received warning notices.

Rules quietly easing

Unofficially, things are a little different, said Peckford, with a new emphasis on enforcing the ministerial directives on monitoring.

"The shift is, now you'll be charged because you're not compliant with the ministerial directives that were issued," he said.

Peckford says it's a bit of a relief, because upgrading Lewisporte's system would cost an estimated $35 million, not counting the ongoing operation and maintenance costs, including hiring a professional to run the system.

So now communities are looking for other loopholes to avoid big infrastructure bills.

Lewisporte town manager Brian Peckford received a letter warning him he could be charged for not complying with federal waste-water regulations. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

The standards are based on the amount of effluent from each outfall — or pipe dumping waste into a body of water. In some communities, each home has its own outfall into the harbour; others might have two or three homes on an outfall.

A couple of homes won't produce enough effluent to put an outfall over the threshold. So, theoretically, they're not breaking the rules and don't have to upgrade the system, noted Peckford.

There's also a population issue involved, said Craig Pollett, CEO of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador. The threshold is 100 cubic metres of effluent per outfall per day. Below that, the outfall doesn't fall under the regulations, he said.

"We're looking at a lot of municipalities in this province that are probably just above that threshold right now. But we think, looking at where a lot of these populations are going, that probably in five or 10 years, they'll be under that threshold."

Recently, raw sewage was being dumped into Freshwater Bay from an offline treatment plant in Gambo. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

So if a community can meet the ministerial directives for monitoring over the next few years, inevitable population decline will put them under the threshold without spending a whole lot of money.

There are other possible methods to avoid paying for expensive new systems. Many communities have old-fashioned one-stream disposal systems, meaning wastewater from home sinks, toilets and washing machines flows out the same pipe as runoff from heavy rain and snow melt.

It's possible that by converting to a two-stream disposal system, a community could cut its actual effluent significantly.

"A lot of work is starting to be done, and a lot more can be done around the maintenance of a lot of these systems," said Pollett.

"Because quite often what is going through the system is not wastewater at all — it's rainwater or groundwater that's seeping in through leaks in the pipes and that sort of thing. Infiltrating the system. So we're essentially treating groundwater we've never used at all."

Peckford says the problem is there's not really any available cost comparison between installing a whole new treatment system or digging up all the current pipes and installing a two-stream system. Lewisporte is looking into that now.

Craig Pollett, CEO of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, says waste-water treatment regulation enforcement is relaxing as officials realize towns just can't pay. (CBC)

There are other options, though, including biological treatment plants. Glenwood and Appleton have a system in which reed beds play a major part in disposing waste.

In Glenwood, after lift stations pump wastewater to the treatment facility, it goes through a grinder, then an auger separates the solids to prevent them from going into the tanks, said town foreman Ryan Ellis.

"And then, it's pretty much gravity flows through the system and the reeds, the beds, eats it all up," he said. "The sludge gets transported to a bed and it just sits in the bed. The bed has a liner which have plants in it as well, that eats anything that might be in the sludge."

Ellis says the system works so well, the community is already compliant with the 2020 regulations.

But even that type of system, can have issues if heavy rain overflows the beds and waste runs into the Gander River. Maintenance costs in Glenwood are rising as well.

Single-stream wastewater systems expel household effluent in the same pipes as rain runoff and snow melt. That distorts calculations of actual amounts of waste in the system. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Peckford says some of the pressure that has been put on municipalities could have been avoided.

"A lot of the other municipalities didn't place a real priority on the whole wastewater system effluent regulations at the time. And a lot of it was because you had a provincial government that didn't necessarily buy into the federal wastewater strategy."

But for now, says Pollett, as long as communities are monitoring effluent and can prove they're planning a reasonable solution, officials tend to be lenient.

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