One of 12 sewer outfalls in Corner Brook, that pour untreated wastewater into the surrounding bay, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)
A western Newfoundland city is partnering with one of its biggest private employers in the hopes of solving its raw sewage problem and finally meeting federal wastewater rules that it, and many other Canadian municipalities, haven’t had the cash to comply with on their own.
Corner Brook has ample natural wonders, nestled in the Bay of Islands. It also has ample sewage, with a dozen outfalls spewing untreated waste daily into the surrounding seawater that flows into the North Atlantic Ocean.
“There’s no polite way to put this. It’s absolutely disgusting,” said Sheldon Peddle, the executive director of the environmental group ACAP Humber Arm.
Peddle’s organization has quantified that revulsion. Fecal coliform levels in the water should sit at around 200 most probable number (MPN) for people to use it recreationally. In past studies, ACAP Humber Arm has found levels in Corner Brook topping 80,000, Peddle said, with more foul stuff found in the water beyond fecal matter.
“It’s not just human waste, but it’s the cleaners and the chemicals that we use in our homes that are all going into the bay as well,” he said.
Corner Brook was ordered by the federal government to start treating its sewage by 2020, along with many other municipalities in the country without wastewater treatment. Those rules, announced in 2012, presented a huge challenge to towns and cities across the country strapped for cash.
That’s been particularly notable in Newfoundland and Labrador, which lags behind the rest of the country with 33 per cent of its total municipal wastewater untreated, according to federal government data.
Corner Brook Pulp and Paper sits on the city’s waterfront, and has its own wastewater treatment facility. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)
Corner Brook’s deadline has come and gone. That’s despite plans in hand for a treatment plant, that would top $100 million to get up and running — a daunting price tag for a city of 19,000 people, where last year’s entire budget came in around $35 million.
The city didn’t miss the mark for lack of trying, according to its director of community engineering, development and planning.
“We’ve applied several times for provincial and federal funding,” said Darren Charters, adding there was no luck any such time, with so many other towns asking for the same aid.
The municipality and the mill
Now, there’s renewed hope from an unlikely source: Corner Brook Pulp and Paper, the mill that has occupied a swath of the the city’s waterfront for almost a century.
The mill has its own wastewater plant that processes its own effluent, and approached the city last year with an idea to examine expanding that to include municipal sewage.
“We thought it was something that would make sense to look at,” said Darren Pelley, the vice president and general manager of Corner Brook Pulp and Paper.
Why would a private entity, already compliant with its sewage laws, want to tinker with someone else’s wastewater?
For Pelley, it’s out of goodwill for the mill’s prominent role in the city — “we take our place as a corporate citizen very seriously,” he said — as well as the potential opportunity to upgrade its treatment facility with the newest technology.
“Mutual benefit would potentially be much lower cost from an overall city installation point of view, and also make our system stronger for the future,” said Pelley.
Darren Charters is the director of community engineering, development and planning with the City of Corner Brook. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)
The two sides secured $56,200 from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for a feasibility study, now in its final stages and expected to wrap this fall.
That study is looking at whether expanding the mill’s wastewater plant to handle municipal waste can even be done, as there are vast differences between what the mill handles and what the city flushes.
But there are a few things going for the mill’s current system. It sits at the city’s lowest elevation, meaning it will take less effort for city sewage to flow down to it, and Pelley said the mill has the physical space available to accommodate any extra infrastructure needed.
‘A signficant challenge’
While a few places in Canada have looked to private industry to solve wastewater woes, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities said it’s far more common for neighbouring communities to band together on treatment, and sharing the often prohibitive costs associated with it.
The FCM has also spent years lobbying levels of government to pitch in more to help.
“We are very supportive of regulations that protect the environment and protect the resources of municipalities,” said Chris Boivin, the chief development officer with the FCM. “But municipalities do need financial support.”
A wastewater outfall in Corner Brook. Finding the money to pay for wastewater is a challenge across Canada, says the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)
The FCM itself has kicked in cash, from both a pot of money for innovative ideas like Corner Brook’s, to capital funding. For the latter it’s spent about $80 million so far, said Boivin, helping municipalities from Slave Lake, Alta. to Brockton, Ont.
“Different communities struggle with different aspects of their wastewater,” he said. But one thing to Boivin is clear: sewage treatment is “a significant challenge.”
In Corner Brook, getting its water clean is a “high priority,” said Charters.
So too is finding a financially feasible way to do it, with fingers cross for the mill. “I hope there’s an opportunity to do co-treatment,” he said.
The federal government did not respond to requests from CBC News as to whether it has fined any Canadian municipality so far for missing the sewage deadlines, but for Corner Brook’s part, Charters said so far they haven’t been dinged.
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