$4 million sewage plant not good enough for feds

Iqaluit must spend at least $10 million more in five years



Every flush of a toilet in Iqaluit could contribute to the poisoning of fish in Koojessee Inlet.

That needs to stop, warns the Nunavut Water Board, in its decision last week to issue a draft water license to the City of Iqaluit.

The draft licence includes an order requiring that Iqaluit upgrade to a “secondary” sewage treatment system in five years, at a cost of at least $10 million.

The city’s sewage treatment plant went online earlier this year, after a construction project that cost more than $4 million. But the plant only provides “primary” treatment.

That’s not good enough to satisfy federal regulators, who warn that ammonia and suspended solids — the muck flushed down your toilet — could poison fish, breaking federal law.

There’s no evidence fish are being killed by Iqaluit’s sewage, the water board notes, but they say that doesn’t mean the city may break the law.

City staff have admitted the new plant won’t meet federal standards for some time.

“We’re going to be in violation of that. I’ll say that point blank,” said Geoff Baker, the city’s engineer.

Iqaluit once had secondary sewage treatment on its list of projects to be built under its capital plan agreement with the Government of Nunavut. But the sewage upgrade ended up being cut from the list because of tight finances, said Baker.

Now the city needs to find money for the upgrade. Potential sources include the GN’s capital plan, along with gas tax money and other federal programs, Baker said.

“We do realize at some point we’ll absolutely have to move to secondary treatment,” he said.

What’s more, the city could be violating its new licence the moment it comes into effect.

That’s because the draft license contains strict guidelines on sewage disposal that would come into effect immediately — not in five years. Baker said he doubts the city will be able to meet those rules, and is asking the board to lower those standards until secondary sewage treatment is available.

“Why put a condition on a licence you’re not going to administer?” Baker asked.

Iqaluit has operated without a water licence since January 2001. The draft license, if approved by the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, will be valid for five years.

Even if Iqaluit does upgrade to secondary treatment, there’s a chance it still might not meet federal guidelines, according to the consultant who designed the sewage treatment plant.

But the water board insists it can’t ignore the law, especially when the city has been fined in the past for violating the Fisheries Act.

In 2002, Justice Robert Kilpatrick fined the city $100,000 after an estimated 822,000 litres of sewage spilled from a broken sewage lift station into the bay.

A similar ruling in the Yukon in 2003 led Dawson City, which had dumped sewage into the Yukon River, to be fined and ordered to build a secondary treatment plant.

Meanwhile, much larger coastal cities in southern Canada continue to pump raw sewage into the ocean, without facing fines.

“If you drive past St. John’s harbour, there are literally condoms floating in the harbour,” said Baker, describing his Newfoundland home city, which still hasn’t fully upgraded to primary sewage treatment.

“There are solids floating in the harbour.”

At least St. John’s has plans to upgrade to secondary treatment by 2008. In British Columbia, the city of Victoria continues to pump some 200 billion litres of untreated sewage into the Juan de Fuca Strait, with no plans to build a sewage treatment plant.

Victoria’s city officials insist that ocean currents break down the sewage, rendering it inert. Environmentalists plug their noses in dismay, and say that the sewage could poison seaworms on the ocean bed, allowing toxins to work their way up the food chain to eventually harm large marine mammals, such as killer whales.

In its reasons for decision, the Nunavut Water Board scolds Iqaluit for building a treatment plant without consulting the board first. It also expressed concern about federal regulators not inspecting problem areas more frequently.

As well, the water board wants answers to the unresolved issue of who owns North 40, an abandoned metal dump that contains leaking petroleum, heavy metals and asbestos, before the proposed license expires.

The water board may now have greater jurisdiction, thanks to comments made by an Indian and Northern Affairs official at the last hearing held in Iqaluit.

At the meeting, INAC’s Jim Rogers stated that any burning done in the landfill — something the city no longer practices — could contaminate runoff, making it an issue for the water board to consider.

That contradicts the federal government’s position in August 2001, when it overruled a water board decision to outlaw burning in the dump. Rogers’ statement “corrects” the position of the minister at the time, the water board writes in its decision.

Other conditions of Iqaluit’s draft water licence include:

* The city must develop plans for a new dump, because the existing landfill is expected to be full in the next five years. The city must also complete an abandonment and restoration plan for the existing site, either one year before the license expires, or one year before the dump becomes full, whichever is earlier;
* The city must install silt fences or curtains to prevent sediment from flowing into Lake Geraldine, the city’s potable water supply;
* The city must trap any run-off from the dump and monitor it for contaminants.

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