Iqaluit councillor grills city staff after suffering sewage flood
“Before I put the key in the door I could smell it”
An Iqaluit city councillor, who said his house was uninhabitable for two months because it was flooded with sewage, grilled public works staff earlier this month over how they deliver trucked water and sewage services.
One of the most unpleasant experiences that a resident of Nunavut can have is for sewage truck crews to leave the sewage pump in reverse and pump air into a house’s septic tank – with disgusting, explosive results.
That happened to the Apex home of Coun. Mat Knicklebein last winter.
As Knicklebein arrived home for lunch on Feb 5, a sewage truck driver told him they might have made a mistake in emptying his septic tank.
“Before I could put the key in my door I could smell it,” he recalled.
Knicklebein and his family stayed two months in an empty city of Iqaluit staff house. The city’s insurance policy is on the hook for the repairs, replacement and clean-up.
“I never realized this actually happens to people,” he told Nunatsiaq News. “But now that I am involved on a personal level and on the council level, it kind of opened my eyes.”
“My wife was in tears for a week over this,” he added.
At a meeting of the city’s committee of public works and engineering on May 4, Knicklebein grilled public works staff over what procedures exist to prevent such a disaster as happened to his home.
Some 350 homes and businesses in Iqaluit and Apex are dependent on trucked services, including the city’s municipal garage.
An average day includes servicing about 100 buildings, with four trips to the lagoon to dump the sewage.
There have been two disasters like Knicklebein’s in the last year, Ford said.
“It’s kind of frustrating because we should never have any thing like this happen, but it happens,” he said.
Knicklebein’s unlucky home was the first to be serviced after the sewage truck had discharged its last load at the sewage lagoon, and the driver forgot to set the truck’s pump back to suction.
Ford told city councillors that this month the city is going to install one-way check-valves onto its sewage trucks to prevent just this from happening again.
But to be doubly certain, Ford recommended that homeowners get similar valves installed on their houses as well. These cost $38.
“A local plumber is coming to install a one-way check-valve so that’ll never happen to my house… again,” Knicklebein said at the meeting.
His plumber told him that the valve needs to be cleaned out once per year.
Coun. Romeyn Stevenson said he had also looked into a valve for his home and said the cost, including installation, came to about $150.
Coun. Natsiq Kango suggested that houses on trucked services should be required to valves installed before they can be sold to a new owner.
Knicklebein said he had not known such hardware existed when he moved into his house six years ago.
Ford also said there’s a notice on the dashboard of every sewage truck, reminding drivers to switch back to suction after they’ve discharged the sewage at the lagoon. There’s also a bright light on the dash that stays on as long as the truck is set to pump out sewage.
Knicklebein pointed out that those measures obviously weren’t sufficient, since such incidents still happen.
He suggested a loud and annoying beep – similar to what many vehicles have when they are in reverse gear – so the driver would notice this, if it happens.
Ford said it was a good suggestion; one he would take back with him to the shop.
Trucked water mishaps happen, too: sometimes the crew overfills a water tank, which can cause flooding. Ford said there have been approximately eight such incidents over the past year.
To try to minimize water delivery errors, Ford said the water truck driver will now carry a log book detailing how much water each house has required in the past.
The crew will stop pumping water when the house reaches its average use.
Houses on trucked water have a red light outside that turns off when the water tank nears empty to alert truck drivers that the house needs water and turns on again when the tank is full.
Coun. Stevenson suggested that maybe the red light system should be reversed: the light should activate when the tank is nearly empty, not when it is nearly full.
Coun. Mary Wilman questioned whether water truck crews are adequately trained and whether they were taking their responsibilities as public servants seriously.
Ford responded that some water overflows aren’t the city’s fault, such as those which occur when the red light isn’t working or the overflow valve is frozen shut.
In such cases, the city’s insurance is not liable for the cost of repairing any damage.
Ford also explained that in some houses the overflow valve is on the other side of the house from the water intake, so if the red light is not working, the truck crew has no way of knowing that they are overfilling the tank.
Ford admitted that mistakes in water service will never completely be eliminated because the city can’t force homeowners to maintain their houses.