Raw sewage will no longer be dumped into St. John’s Harbour as of this year, but the new wastewater treatment facility will have to be upgraded sooner than later to keep up with environmental regulations, Kerri Breen explains.
John Barry, project engineer for the City of St. John’s, takes me on a tour of the Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Facility, through rooms filled with ladders, tanks, and pipes labeled “grit slurry” and “digester gas.”
Parts of the facility look like they could be part of a spaceship, with walls of illuminated buttons, knobs, switches, and widgets.
It’s not quite as flamboyant as Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but something a little magical is about to happen at the facility, and it’s been a long time coming.
Treatment of local wastewater has been planned since the late ‘90s. After years of advocacy, planning, and scrounging up the provincial, federal, and municipal cash to complete such a large project, the Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Facility is set to be operational by this summer.
If the project stays on schedule, all of St. John’s, Mount Pearl, and surrounding area will be serviced by the end of this year.
Unlike what you’d expect, the facility smells like fresh concrete. Outside, people are working in the deep channels that waste will eventually flow through, pulled by plastic chains.
The bulk of the waste will be separated from the water and sent to a big tank called a digester. The facility will eventually be able to use the methane gas produced by this process, and the solid waste left over—equal to about a dumpster full a day—will be sent to the landfill.
The water is disinfected by chlorine and neutralized. Then it flows out into the harbour. It won’t exactly be drinkable, but it will be in a better condition than it was when it entered the facility.
Soon, that won’t be good enough.
By the time the facility opens, it will already be behind the sewage treatment times. Riverhead is a primary treatment plant. In the wastewater world, this is considered the first step and Secondary treatment—already occuring in Portugal Cove-St. Phillips, for example—is normal.
Stricter wastewater rules have recently gained federal legislative support.
In February, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment endorsed a document called the Canada-wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent. The strategy articulates the agreement reached by 14 environment ministers in Canada to provide regulatory clarity in managing municipal wastewater.
Newfoundland and Labrador is one of three provinces that has not endorsed the strategy, which has established national performance standards of wastewater quality. Waters deemed to be high risk will be legislated to meet these standards within ten years.
A 2003 environmental assessment of the St. John’s Harbour Clean-Up project mandated that the facility upgrade to primary enhanced treatment after five years of operation. Enhanced primary treatment means that more chemicals will be added to the water so that more suspended solids can be removed.
This consideration was built into the details of the facility. Throughout the tour, Barry points out areas where extra equipment could be added if the facility were to upgrade.
“You have to appreciate, when I started this project there was no legislation that governed the dumping of sewage into oceans, into saltwater, in Canada,” he says.
Despite its name, the St. John’s Harbour Clean-Up project will not involve any cleansing or filtration of the harbour waters.
Barry explains that processes which allowed the damage to occur will stop, allowing the waste to decompose and the ecosystem to start to repair itself.
He expects this will take several years, but it won’t take too long before the public sees a difference in the harbour. The floatables, and maybe the smell, will be diminished.
“The public may see the water quality in the harbour improve a certain amount,” Barry says. “I’m not recommending you get your swimming suit on and go for a swim.”
Dan Ficken, water quality monitoring technician with the North East Avalon Coastal Action Plan says the organization is very pleased that the facility will soon be running “once and for all.”
He paints a startling picture of what’s happening below the surface of the harbour now. Unlike Halifax Harbour, for example, our harbour has a limited ability to flush waste out into the ocean.
“The harbour itself isn’t big enough to handle the amount of raw sewage that goes into it and particularly in the way the currents are and the way that the narrows are, there’s just not much circulation in the harbour.”
He guesses that it’s the most polluted harbour east of San Francisco Bay. The sewage is not just an aesthetic problem. The harbour is full of disease, bacteria, nitrogen (toxic to aquatic life), and antibiotics; there may even be heavy metals on the ocean floor. You can get a disease just by touching the water, he says.
Not much lives in the harbour, and if it does, it can’t be having too much of a time. Ficken says fish can suffer fin rot, liver lesions, and disrupted birthing patterns. Male fish can turn into female fish.
“I don’t mean to make that sound really scary,” Ficken says. “It’s just the reality that the harbour is a chemically toxic soup.”
He says the longer the expansion into secondary treatment is put off, there will be an increasing cost for the harbour ecosystem, and increased cost to tax payers.
The harbour treatment effort has already gone over $44.4 million over budget. The original rough estimate of $93 million was made around ’99, when, Barry says, costs of labour and materials like concrete, steel, and copper were lower.
“We didn’t have enough detailed work done in order to give us better numbers at the time, so that was part of it. Then we were hit with …some very substantial material cost increases.”
Barry says the capital cost to upgrade the facility for enhanced treatment won’t be too large. To upgrade to secondary treatment, however, would involve building new facilities that, if they were built today, would cost an extra $70 million, plus the cost of rock excavation from the site.
“This is also a substantial cost to taxpayers of the city and you have to balance that out with what tax payers can reasonably afford against other issues that have to be dealt with,” Barry says.
Right now, 120 million litres of wastewater are flowing into the St. John’s harbour each day.
About ten years ago, Barry says, the city had to blast some rock in order to improve harbour navigation; so it sent divers down to do a bottom inspection.
“The tide must have been coming out and it was just like you were in a snowstorm—and what it was was all the toilet paper.”
Illustration by Ricky King.