Halifax's new $300-million sewer system could be obsolete before opens. That's because federal environment minister John Baird has promised "in short order" new rules about what we can dump into the harbour.Those rules present two major challenges for our almost-ready sewage plants. The first is that the planned "primary advanced" level of treatment for our raw sewage won't be up to the new standards.
Primary advanced treatment removes suspended solids from sewage, which is hit with ultra-violet light to kill micro- organisms. The soon-to-be mandatory secondary treatment goes a step further and removes organic materials.Major challenge number two is that some of our wastewater will still go directly into the harbour untreated.
The new federal regulations are the result of a four-year process by the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment. Everybody from the mayor to environmental activists to the staff at HRM knew this was coming, yet the regional municipality is hundreds of millions of dollars deep into constructing outdated sewage treatment plants.
"An environmental assessment, using sound science, said that advanced primary could do the trick," says Carl Yates, head of the Halifax Water Commission.James Campbell at the Harbour Solutions office adds that this decision was based on public consultation by local officials and environmental groups, in the form of the Harbour Solutions Advisory Task Force. "The assessment was based on the initial cost of the project," Campbell says.
Advanced primary wasn't the best sewage treatment option on the market, but it was the most affordable. It was good enough.Meanwhile, other Nova Scotian municipalities, such as Annapolis and Amherst, have recently added sewage facilities that meet or exceed the new federal guidelines. The Mill Pond plant in Bedford, built in 1969, and the Eastern Passage plant, built in 1974, were also constructed to secondary standards. The decision to go with primary advanced may have saved some short-term dollars, but the new rules will require an additional $100-million of taxpayer investment. The good news is that if Baird keeps his promise, this burden will be partially supported with federal money.
But the $100 million is really just the beginning of a long-term process of increasing federal controls on what we can put into the water. "This is part of the draft Canada-wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent...This strategy will have a bigger impact on municipalities than anything that has come out of the Walkerton Inquiry," says Yates, referring to federal requirements for upgrading drinking water systems.
Yates says that Halifax will be required to fix the second shortcoming of our treatment plants, the overflow problem. On very rainy days there isn't enough capacity to hold all our wastewater. "Minimizing overflow is not incorporated into current plans," says Yates.
The total cost of implementing the strategy could be enormous, but according to Yates we may have up to 30 years to do so. "We need a dedicated federal stream of new funds," he says. "Otherwise this will be a tremendous burden that could wipe out small towns." Setting aside the sad fact that the environment and the quality of our water isn't a top-notch financial priority, there are ways we can save money and still have the best sewage system this side of the Atlantic, says Jennifer Graham, coastal issues coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. Graham looks at solar aquatic facilities in Bear River and Beaver Bank as examples of less expensive wastewater systems that can deal with not only sewage, but also stormwater runoff and produce no sludge byproduct. She notes the perfect storm brewing around the new federal regulations, the ongoing consultation for a provincial water strategy and the launch of Halifax-Dartmouth's sewage facilities.
According to Graham, "Now is the perfect time to look at natural ecosystem functions, to explore ways of integrating park design, increased wildlife habitat, more wetlands and fewer impermeable concrete surfaces into wastewater management."