There have been other ideas for dealing with the raw sewage flowing into the harbour—diverting it to Dartmouth’s lakes, for example, or the 1988 plan to burn it on McNabs Island and thus cover the city in a toxic mercury smog. Compared to those, Harbour Solutions is a forward-thinking work of genius. But only compared to those.
It's disgusting. On that, everyone agrees.
Every day local residents dump 180 million litres of raw sewage into Halifax Harbour. All the feces, urine, toilet paper, industrial waste, pharmaceuticals, detergents, oils, fertilizers—everything flushed down every toilet, every sink and every storm drain on the Halifax peninsula and in the older parts of Dartmouth—flows through 65 outfall pipes at 19 locations along the shore.
To find the outfalls, look for the circles of seagulls picking through the mess. Or just take a whiff: A nauseating stench often wafts back over nearby neighbourhoods. Those dining at harbourside restaurants can simply peek over the side and watch "floatables" wash against the dock.
Forget about swimming in the harbour: Health officials warn against even touching the water lest you contract any number of ugly diseases. And the ecological balance of the harbour is hopelessly out of whack—biologists find snails that have mutated into a third, indeterminate sex, and speak of suffocating lobsters.
So now we have Harbour Solutions, the largest public works project in Halifax history. Costing $333 million, it is essentially a gigantic replumbing of the city consisting of hundreds of kilometres of pipes placed below city streets, seven pumping stations built or rebuilt, three new sewage treatment plants and a bio-solids processing facility.
No one doubts the new system will be better than doing nothing at all, but it is nonetheless dogged by criticism at every step. Environmentalists point out that the way the new system is configured, raw sewage will continue to flow into the harbour. Neighbourhood activists claim putting a sewage treatment plant in the north end demonstrates that Halifax hasn't left its racist history behind. Oceanographers argue the sewage will not be treated at a high enough level to ensure the health of the harbour. Others say the proposal to sell sewage sludge as fertilizer will end in a health disaster.
City officials acknowledge Harbour Solutions isn't perfect, but say it's the best solution for the money available.
"We're responsible for doing what's economically feasible, what the residents can afford," explains Ted Tam, Harbour Solutions manager. "And we're going to meet all the water-quality objectives established for us."
Tam recently announced that the completion date for Harbour Solutions has been pushed back three months, to September 2008 for the entire project. The Halifax sewage-treatment plant, originally scheduled to be operating this month, won't be up and running until September of this year.
The delay isn't a big concern for a project its size and the city will actually save money because of time guarantees written into the construction contracts. But another season of tourists will witness raw sewage dumped in the harbour. And, because stiff new sewage-treatment standards are being written into the federal Fisheries Act this spring, the day the Halifax sewage plant opens it will fail to meet the law.
Halifax was built with no thought of sewage disposal. Outhouses were built behind businesses and homes, and that was the end of it. By the late 19th century, indoor toilets replaced outhouses and waste was routed to newly constructed sewers that diverted both rain water and sewage out to the harbour.
Some improvement came in the 1970s, when new subdivisions outside the old city cores were required to separate the storm and sanitary sewers, and sewage treatment plants were built at Mill Cove in the Bedford Basin and at Eastern Passage.
But so far as the older parts of the city go, over the past century politicians and bureaucrats have done nothing about the pipes dumping sewage into the Halifax Harbour and Northwest Arm beyond coming up with a series of bizarre plans that lacked both sense and funding.
For example, in 1969 the then-city of Dartmouth considered dumping treated sewage into its freshwater lakes, while the then-city of Halifax contemplated filling in Purcell's Cove and building a sewage treatment plant on it. In 1987 the cities joined together and proposed building a single plant on Hens and Chickens, a shoal just off Point Pleasant Park. The following year they suggested piping all the area's sewage to McNabs Island and burning it in a questionable oil-from-sludge scheme, which would, by and by, send a toxic mercury plume over the harbour and adjacent cities.
In the early 1990s the cities gave up on the burning plan, but aimed instead to build a sewage-treatment plant on McNabs. The cities contracted with a consortium of private companies to build and operate the plant, but that deal fell apart when the cities refused to accept legal responsibility for failing to meet environmental standards.
Harbour Solutions was cobbled together from the abandoned McNabs plan after the Halifax Regional Municipality was created in 1996.
While all the earlier ideas had failed, they did serve to rile up the citizenry such that a devoted cadre of activists has been bird-dogging sewer plans for decades. Fearing yet more citizen opposition to Harbour Solutions, the new Super City attempted to bring the public into the process, first by holding a public symposium at Dalhousie University, then by creating a citizens' advisory committee to catch any major screw-ups before they got too far along.
Pissing away millions of dollars
"Halifax has never been very good dealing with people about sewage," says Alan Ruffman, a citizen-activist, who has been watching Halifax try to deal with sewers and people since the Purcell's Cove proposal of 1969.
As Ruffman tells it, millions of taxpayer dollars have been essentially stolen, as a "harbour clean-up" surcharge attached to water bills in the 1970s was redirected to subsidize new private development, like the Bayers Lake Industrial Park.
"You can still see the break in the concrete on the Bi-Hi," he says. "They spent $14 million of the harbour cleanup fund to build a new pipe over the hill to Fairview Cove."
The BLIP sewage reaches Fairview, then travels through a tunnel beneath the north end only to be discharged untreated at the end of Duffus Street.
"It had absolutely nothing to do with cleaning up the harbour," he says. Asked how much money has been diverted into such projects, Ruffman performs a quick mental calculation. "At least $60 million."
Part of the problem is philosophical: What's the best way to treat sewage?
Traditional sewage engineering relies on lots of pipes and pumping stations to move the sewage to one gigantic treatment plant, where it runs through a series of chemical processes until it is deemed safe enough to flow into the broader environment.
But activists reject that approach.
"These silly, silly engineers—it's just absurd," says David Wimberly, who became active in sewage issues after being horrified by the sewage burning plan of 1987. "They have only chemical, mechanical and high-energy solutions."
Wimberly sees a time when every house will have composting toilets on site. Failing that, he'd recommend at least 20 Solar Aquatics sewage-treatment plants—the Candian invention that uses artificial wetlands to filter sewage through natural processes—spread throughout the city.
Rosalee Grette Lydon, who has followed Harbour Solutions since its earliest incarnation, when engineers proposed a single large plant at Herring Cove, finds herself somewhere in the middle. Like Wimberly, she'd rather see lots of Solar Aquatics plants and even argues for one to be built in Point Pleasant Park, not far from her south end home.
"I want it in my backyard," she explains. "Everyone should have their sewage treated in their own neighbourhood."
But Grette Lydon, like most of the other citizen activists, signed off on a compromised Harbour Solutions, one with four traditional plants—one at Herring Cove, one on the south end of Halifax peninsula, one in the north end and one in Dartmouth.
That's pretty much what we're getting (except for the south end plant, which has since disappeared from the plans). The activists express unease about the compromise, but admit it's probably the most feasible solution, economically speaking.
What's of far greater concern to them is how the sewage gets to the plants.
A dog poop conspiracy
Harbour Solutions deals with the pipes dumping sewage and rainwater into the harbour—they're called combined sewer outfalls, or CSOs—by plugging them into new pipes which, instead of dumping into the harbour, run to the sewer plant.
The new pipes are designed to handle four times the volume going through the pipes on a typical sunny day. But when it rains more than that, only the heaviest and biggest stuff coming through the sewers is screened off and sent to the treatment plant. Everything else overflows just like it always has—raw sewage will be dumped, untreated, right into the harbour.
How often will this happen? "At least 90 days a year," says Grette Lydon. The environmental review for the project predicts overflows will occur anywhere from 20 to 70 times annually, but Dan O'Halloran, an engineer contracted to work on the project, says they'll happen just 20 or 25 times a year. Tam, for his part, refuses to answer the question. "It doesn't matter," he says, and it is incalculable besides, because too many factors enter the equation.
However often overflows happen, their occurrence will be a matter of public record, says Tam.
Regardless, the system is engineered all wrong, says Grette Lydon. She'd rather the system be completely separated—every street in the entire city would have one pipe for storm water, which leads directly to the harbour, and a second pipe for sanitary sewers, which runs to the treatment plant. This, after all, is how it's done in the rest of the city, outside the older city cores.
Like Ruffman and Wimberly, Grette Lydon argues that separation could be put together piecemeal, over the next couple of decades. "Every time a street is dug up for some other reason, you put in the two pipes, until you can hook them all together," she says.
In fact, Harbour Solutions separates storm and sanitary sewers in a very small area of the downtown core—the area between Salter and Duke Streets. But digging up every street over the entire peninsula and in Dartmouth was judged too pricey an undertaking, even though there's no agreement on how much this would cost. Ruffman suggests somewhere around $50 million, while O'Halloran says it'd cost 10 times that—half a billion dollars.
"We've never even attempted to find out," says Tam. "Whatever it is, it's massive. And then on top of that, there's a political issue: Are you going to force every property owner to rip up their front yards ?"
Tam points out that a lot of pollutants flow through storm drains—antifreeze and oils dropped from cars, fertilizers running off lawns, and more. "Take a subdivision. Say, 30 percent of the people have a dog. They walk their dogs, a lot of them don't use the Sobeys bag to pick up after them, that enters the storm sewer."
Talk nowadays in the international engineering industry is about treating storm runoff just like the rest of sewage. "Are you willing to say that 15 years down the road, you're going to start treating storm sewers?" asks Tam. "If so, all the money you've spent on separation is a wasted investment."
But, as Tam makes that argument, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment has issued new standards for sewage systems across the nation, which will soon be incorporated into the federal Fisheries Act as law. Although the law gives municipalities an unspecified amount of time to reach the standards, they call for the complete elimination of existing CSOs.
Smells like racism
And what of that south end plant?
In 2001, the city was negotiating the purchase of two peninsula properties in order to build sewage-treatment plants—a north end site at DND property near the Macdonald Bridge, and a south end site on Via Rail property near Pier 21.
But with no public notice whatsoever, the Port Authority stepped in and bought the Via Rail site out from under the city. "We had no intention of letting a plant go there," David Bellefontaine, president of the Port Authority, told the Chronicle-Herald. The plant, he said, would subject cruise-ship tourists to unpleasant odours. "Welcome to Halifax. Now please turn your noses to the right to avoid the smell of the treatment plant," he explained.
City officials have always said they were blindsided by the purchase and they could do nothing about it, as both Via Rail and the Port Authority are federal crown corporations, which are immune to municipal condemnation efforts. Moreover, mayor Peter Kelly condemned the purchase and the city issued a press statement countering the notion that the sewage plant would smell bad.
Several months later, the DND site likewise became unavailable.
"It wasn't a matter of cost," says Tam of the DND site. "We wanted that property, if they were willing to sell, but the fact of the matter is, they had security concerns."
But Dawn Sloane, the councillor for the area, disagrees. "It was a personality conflict," she says, explaining that the city's chief bureaucrat at the time, Ken Meech, had a falling out with the DND administrators over an unrelated property transaction.
"It had nothing to do with security," says Sloane.
Whatever the reason, the plant planned for the DND property was instead plopped onto the only available nearby site, a city-owned parcel at Barrington and Cornwallis Streets, just down the hill from the Gottingen Street business district, across the street from the Turning Point Homeless Shelter. And, because the south end plant won't be built, the north end plant will end up treating twice the amount of sewage as first planned.
For nearby residents, the entire process smacks of racism. Consider: The plant for Herring Cove, initially considered as the sole plant for all of Halifax, was downgraded to a relatively small plant handling only local sewage after white middle-class residents objected. Likewise, a secretive deal between federal agencies nixed a plant planned for the wealthy white south end neighbourhood. Then, a plant planned for the waterfront gets shifted to the predominantly black north end neighbourhood—with no consultation of the residents.
"If the Port Authority didn't want it, why is it OK for us to have it?" asks Shazza (she goes by the one name), one of several north end residents who have filed a complaint with the provincial Human Rights Commission over the issue.
The complaint puts the sewer plant in context of the historic treatment of black Nova Scotians—the placement of a dump, a prison and an infectious-disease hospital in the old black community of Africville, then the destruction of that community to make way for the MacKay Bridge.
"It's environmental racism," agrees Sloane. "Typically, you put dumps, sewage and chemical plants in transient and low-income areas, where people don't have the money to fight them."
"We're upset at the way they went about it," says Shazza. "I've never felt they were forthcoming. They hold private meetings about everything. How can I feel they were honest with us? They deliberately misinformed me and my community."
The Human Rights Commission has ruled against the complaint, saying the city had no choice but to place the plant where it did. The issue is now before the provincial Court of Appeals and a ruling is expected in coming weeks.
Shazza would like the city to resolve the issue by redirecting $1 million intended for the plant's facade and landscaping into an economic development fund targeting the area. Her group recently met with leaders of New Dawn Enterprises, an economic development corporation in Cape Breton, to discuss how to manage such a fund.
"We don't want a million dollars spent on beautifying a sewer plant, we want to invest it in the community," she says. "Why isn't my community flourishing the way it should? We need the city to help the community. How is that sewage going to help us?"
"That's the best way to deal with this," Sloane says of the economic development fund. This week, city council voted to approve the development-fund proposal.
The great lobster roadkill incident
Aside from where the plant is, there's the question of what it does.
All three Harbour Solutions plants are "advanced primary" plants, meaning that suspended solids are removed from the sewage, which is then flooded with ultraviolet light to kill a portion of the micro-organisms present. The treated sewage then is pumped through a diffuser pipe placed on the harbour floor, where it mixes with seawater.
This is the lowest level of treatment possible. There is enough room in the plants to install at some later date "secondary treatment" equipment, which removes much of the organic material, but there's no space for tertiary equipment, which is considered the very best way to treat sewage.
In addition to calling for the elimination of CSOs, the new standards from the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment also call for all sewage plants to reach at least the secondary level of treatment, although they acknowledge that it will take some time for all cities to comply. This brings Canada up to US standards, which required all sewage systems to achieve a minimum of secondary treatment—by 1977. (Some American cities are exempted, however.)
Indeed, the Mill Pond plant in Bedford, built in 1969, and the Eastern Passage plant, built in 1974, were constructed to secondary standards. So if local sewage plants built almost 40 years ago could meet secondary treatment levels, why can't brand new plants?
"Let me explain why your thought process is flawed," says Tam. "You can say, let's design a tertiary treatment plant, and we could, but the people wouldn't want to pay for it. is the best system for the money we have to achieve our environmental goals."
Tam has a point: He's doing exactly what he was hired to do. It was the politicians, not the engineers, who set the environmental goals for Harbour Solutions. Here are the water quality goals city council set out to attain, after the project is complete and operating:
South of McNabs Island: water clean enough for people to swim in it and eat shellfish caught in it.
Bedford Basin and south of Point Pleasant Park, including the Northwest Arm: clean enough for people to swim in, but any shellfish caught in those waters should go through depuration (two or three days in a clean tank) before being eaten.
From the MacKay Bridge to the tip of Point Pleasant Park, including Black Rock Beach: clean enough for a "good aesthetic quality" (no floatables), but not so clean that people should actually swim in the water, or eat shellfish from it, under any circumstances.
Those goals drive the project—it doesn't matter how many times raw sewage overflows into the harbour, or that the plants only reach the primary treatment stage, so long as Harbour Solutions reaches those water-quality goals.
But that's not enough, says Shannon Bard, an oceanographer, who studies marine life in the harbour.
"So far as advanced primary goes, it removes 75 to 80 percent of solids," she says. "This is good because many organisms need sunlight, which is reduced due to turbidity. Advanced primary also kills pathogens."
Sewage, however, is contaminated with soaps, detergents and pharmaceutical agents (birth control pills and other medicines) that can be removed only through secondary treatment.
Bard has documented a sick harbour environment. She discovered the asexual snails, and says some species, such as certain seaweeds and snails, are missing completely from sections of the harbour.
The city, she says, is testing the water chemistry of the harbour. "But that's only a snapshot of the chemicals present in the water at that time. It doesn't measure the contaminants that have accumulated in the ecosystem."
She'd like to see more extensive testing of sedimentation and of organisms. "My feeling is that if we're going to be spending $300 million, we should know if the money is well spent."
Bard's colleague, David Scott, has looked at nutrient loads and oxygen levels in the harbour.
"I would never buy lobsters caught in Halifax," he says. "You look at those sewer outfalls, there are lobster traps all around them. And for good reason—there are lots of nutrients. Bedford Basin is already, naturally, oxygen depleted, but then the water gets a little warmer, you get more pollution than normal and some hyperactivity from the algae, and it hits the point where the lobsters can't breathe."
One summer in the early 1990s, says Scott, Bedford Basin was so deprived of oxygen that hundreds of lobsters took to the shore, only to be slaughtered en masse by cars and trucks on the Bedford Highway.
"The city doesn't like to talk about it," he says.
Harbour Solutions is "better than nothing," says Scott, but he, too, would like to see more extensive study of the harbour in coming years. "We can reconstruct what the natural environment was like 250 years ago. We can show how it's changed, then we can monitor what happens after Harbour Solutions is on line. It should be done, but as long as they are not required to do it by law, they're not going to do it."
Lastly, there's sludge: all the solids pulled out of the sewage as it's being treated. The three sewage-treatment plants won't produce much—a specially designed truck will leave the Halifax plant about three times a day, the Dartmouth plant twice a day, the Herring Cove plant once a week.
The city has contracted with N-Viro Systems Canada, a firm that specializes in processing municipal wastes into fertilizer, to build and operate a "bio-solids" facility at the Aerotech Business Park. The sludge will be de-watered and mixed with kiln dust taken from the Lafarge cement factory in Brookfield. The end product will be sold as fertilizer and the city and N-Viro will split the profits.
"N-Viro has been one of the nastiest companies in North America," says Maureen Reilly, an activist who formerly led the Sierra Club's nationwide water campaign and now works full time on sludge-related issues.
"The guys who started N-Viro used to head the cement kiln dust management association in the US," she continues. "They spun themselves off and are now selling cement kiln dust. It doesn't matter how toxic it is."
Rae Wallin, a manager with N-Viro, disputes that characterization. "Our product is safe and is fully regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Act and Agriculture Canada," he says. Kiln dust is used in the N-Viro product because it is heavy in lime and has a high pH value, which neutralizes the high acidity of the sludge bio-solids.
Lafarge recently won provincial approval to burn used tires at Brookfield, which especially worries Murray McBride, a soil scientist at Cornell University, who has studied N-Viro's product.
"N-viro pitches the soil as being great because it has a high pH," explains McBride. "But that's the Achilles' heel of the process: Tires have metal in them and are high in zinc, cadmin and molybdenum. Because the dust has a high pH, the metals aren't soluble. The heavy metals make it right to the soil."
McBride has documented adverse effects on livestock that has grazed on fields fertilized with N-Viro soil. Moreover, he says, farmers don't like it, because although it behaves like pure lime, it quickly washes away. "You have to use it every two or three years."
On the sludge side of things, Halifax has had previous problems. In 1993, sludge from the Eastern Passage and Bedford plants was hauled to composting lagoons on Inglewood Farms near Truro, igniting a controversy that still rages.
"A lot of people got sick and two people were hospitalized," says Fred Blois, a nearby resident. After protests, the sludge operation was shut down.
Blois claims that recent samples from the lagoons show the "highest concentrations of flame retardants ever found," and there's no reason to believe that Halifax sewage has gotten any better.
"Mr. Tam's only concern is getting the stuff out of the Halifax area," says Blois.
Tam says that N-Viro soil is fully approved as a fertilizer by federal regulators. "They're licensed to sell it, and it's their responsibility to find buyers. We're not concerned about it."
But maybe he should be concerned.
"If there's a public perception that there's a problem, then we don't want anything to do with it," says Lawrence Nason, CEO of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. His organization is recommending that farmers refuse to buy the N-Viro product.
So if farmers don't buy it, what will happen with it?
Ruffman suggests that the sludge will end up being mixed with compost many residents buy for their vegetable gardens—"the stuff people grow their tomatoes in." That compost is made from green waste collected through the curbside recycling program.
"We've set up contingency markets," admits N-Viro's Wallin. "We've had no problem marketing our product. We sell mainly to farmers and for land reclamation, but we've had discussion about making use of the green waste program for a small portion of the product."
"The way we're trying to treat the sludge is wrong," says Wimberly. "All of Harbour Solutions is wrong, really. It's not even half-assed, it's more like one-tenth assed."
Tim Bousquet is a freelance journalist who writes “Sustainable City,” a bi-weekly environmental column, for The Coast.