Flood dumped sewage into Gull River
|By Lisa Gervais - Editor | October 26, 2017|
The Township of Minden Hills supports a private member’s bill that would change the way residents find out about raw, or only partially-treated, sewage discharges and bypasses at the waste treatment plant.
Sometimes, particularly when there is a lot of rain, municipalities can’t treat all or some raw sewage, before it is released into rivers and lakes, said Ivan Ingram, the municipalities’ environmental and property operation manager.
He confirmed that 4,600-cubic metres of totally untreated sewage was bypassed this spring. One cubic metre equals about 230 gallons.
In a report to council, Ingram said the existing reporting protocol sees the township’s contractor, the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), immediately call the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s (MOECC) Spills Action Centre to report it. OCWA then notifies the health unit by phone. OCWA then provides the spills centre and health unit with a written report. It is then the health unit’s responsibility to notify residents who may be affected, Ingram said.
Under the proposed bill, the MOECC becomes the lead agency when it comes to notifying the public.
Now, Deborah Johnston, manager of environmental health, said the health unit conducts a risk assessment to determine the threat to public health. It takes action based on the level of risk, including issuing boil water advisories and notifying affected residents, for example, issuing a media release or updating information to its website. She said they continue to work with the municipality after a spill or bypass.
“That was the case during this past spring’s flooding (and resulting state of emergency) in Minden Hills when the health unit worked closely with municipal officials to educate residents about taking precautions/protective measures during and after the flooding,” she said.
When it comes to the bill, “we welcome any effort that increases awareness and transparency about environmental hazards that may pose a risk to public health,” Johnston said.
Under Bill 141, by MPP Sylvia Jones, Ingram said the municipality has to report how long and how much has been discharged and the reasons for it. The MOECC must post the information to a government website as soon as possible, but within 24 hours of being notified. The bill passed first reading on May 31, 2017, and is currently with committee.
“Basically, this will make the MOECC responsible for making the public aware of any spills or bypasses that will have an impact for downstream water users,” Ingram said.
However, he said the township will still play a role, at the bare minimum posting to its website. He said some municipalities have an app that can alert cell phone users quickly.
To date, he said, “the municipality is doing what it is mandated to do.”
Reeve Brent Devolin said they’d have to talk to both the MOECC and the health unit about who does what and when.
Coun. Pam Sayne welcomed council backing the bill, saying there are now “obvious gaps in information” and clarification is needed “so the public knows where to get information.”
The Friends of the Gull River Watershed talked about the situation during post-flood public meetings in June.
A spokesman, Patrick Walshe, told The Highlander, “simply posting notifications on a website is a very passive means of alerting residents of sewage spills. This is 2017 – a combination of telephone, email, text messaging, newspaper and radio announcements and social media would allow instant, notification of a water alert to affected residents.
“It has been a concern to many of us that there has not been proactive outreach to those affected by sewage spills. It is an important issue for a community where affected water is in a confined area such as a river. It is highly unlikely that anyone in Minden takes water directly from the river or lakes, but people do use river water which is passed through their filtration systems to wash dishes, prepare food, etc. We have a right to know that water quality is being affected by sewage spills and when these spills are ameliorated. We would strongly support any initiative which creates awareness of sewage spills so that we can adjust our water usage accordingly.”
Council received the report as information, supported the bill, and will write a letter to the minister of the environment to express support.
LISA GERVAIS is the editor for The Highlander.