With thousands of students returning to their south end neighbourhood, September is usually the busy season for businesses around the intersection of Barrington and Inglis Streets.
But this year, business is crappy. A lone customer eats at Jessy’s Pizza Friday afternoon, as exasperated owner Roger Hammam surveys the torn-up street in front of his business.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “Why couldn’t they do this in the summer?”
There are no customers at all at Schooner Books, so owner John Townsend spends a leisurely 15 minutes discussing the situation.
“They came in a few days ago and said, ‘OK, we’re shutting you down for three months,’” he says. “That’s what they’ve done, substantially. We’ll be open, but nobody will come here.”
Blame the Harbour Solutions sewer project, the $315 million construction project intended to substantially reduce the dumping raw sewage directly into Halifax Harbour.
Construction related to the project has torn up almost every street downtown this year, but the corner of Barrington and Inglis —and nearby businesses—are taking it particularly hard. They’ve been affected three times while Harbour Solutions built a large pumping station at the corner.
Currently, a gigantic crater five metres deep and 20 metres wide slashes across the roadway. Workers at barricades—a block distant on each side—shoo away motorists trying to venture into the area.
As the pumping station work continues, the city is taking the opportunity to simultaneously re-engineer the roads, removing the gentle curve from Inglis down the hill to Barrington and constructing a traditional “T” intersection, says Ted Tam, Harbour Solutions project manager.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of that,” says Townsend of the re-engineering. “They don’t tell me anything.”
While acknowledging the continuing hardship for Townsend and his neighbours, Tam says the end of the construction hassle is in sight, at least for downtown Halifax. All new pipes are in the ground, and the equipment at the new treatment plant at Barrington and Cornwallis Streets will be turned on in January.
“Knock on wood, everything is going extremely well,” he says. “We’re on time and on budget.”
The plant will be tested first with clear water, then, in February, workers will begin diverting sewage from the 13 pipes now dumping into the harbour. After each outflow pipe is diverted, the equipment will be tested and calibrated again before the next pipe is connected.
If all goes according to schedule, the treatment plant will be at full operation next April. A similar plant in downtown Dartmouth is to be fully operational next August, while Herring Cove’s plant will be ready in June of 2008.
“We’re still working on the schedule for street construction as the commissioning continues,” Tam says. “But it will be much less than previous construction, mostly around the sewer outflows themselves.”
The project addresses a problem shared by many older cities: sewage from every Halifax neighbourhood built before about 1970 flows directly into the storm drains, and from there into the harbour.
Various levels of government have been trying to resolve the problem since at least 1924, when the first environmental assessment of the harbour was conducted. Proposed solutions have called variously for dumping sewage off Point Pleasant Park, dumping off McNab’s Island and dumping directly into some of Dartmouth’s lakes, but all of those options proved to be too expensive.
Even Harbour Solutions isn’t a perfect solution. While sewage-only pipes have been installed between Duke and Salter streets, the rest of the Halifax peninsula will still rely on the old storm drains for sewage. These pipes will be diverted into the new treatment plant, which can service a volume equal to four times that which now flows through them on a sunny day. But when it’s raining, the plant will screen off the largest waste particles to be treated, and everything else will continue to run into the harbour, untreated.
Wastewater from the Halifax plant, treated and untreated alike, will run through a pipe placed under a boat ramp near the Casino, says Tam. The pipe goes about a quarter of the way across the harbour, then makes a right hook, eventually discharging the wastewater towards the broader section of the harbour, in deep water.
When construction is complete, the near-shore sewage discharge pipes—the current standard—will be a thing of the past. But planning documents state plainly that even after the new plants are in operation, no one should venture to swim in or eat shellfish caught in the inner harbour, that area between McNab’s Island and the MacKay bridge.
Still, Harbour Solutions is a vast improvement over the present situation, a fact even disgruntled business owner Townsend recognizes.
“We’re not bitching,” he says. “Harbour Solutions is a great thing for Halifax. But we took a shot for this, big time.”