City of St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen has written federal representatives asking for reconsideration under federal wastewater regulations, as the city seeks more time to meet the standards.
St. John’s is facing an impossible timeline on a required, costly piece of construction – an upgrade to the Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Facility off Southside Road. The project involves an expansion of the building, blasting into the Southside Hills, and realistically requires years to complete. But the city has only been given until the end of 2020 to have an upgraded facility up and running.
Apart from the issue of time, there is cost. The project is now estimated at an initial capital cost of $84.9 million, with annual debt servicing costs of about $6.4 million and annual operating costs of about $6 million. The City of Mount Pearl and Town of Paradise are on the same system and will pay into the upgrade, but the City of St. John’s is responsible for the lion’s share.
Water taxes in St. John’s were already expected to rise, as work continues on replacement of aging pipes and other water-related infrastructure. According to what Breen has detailed in his three-page letter obtained by The Telegram, the wastewater treatment project is forecast to – on its own – add another $105 in water tax for every household in the city by 2026.
Without intervention, according to Breen, residents of the City of St. John’s face a 53 per cent total increase in water tax by 2026.
To date, the provincial government has made no commitments to help financially with the wastewater project. While on the campaign trail, now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau slammed the Conservative approach to the introduction of the regulations and said a Liberal government would contribute financially to the project (then estimated at $200 million), but there has been nothing further to date.
The facility now on Southside Road is a primary wastewater treatment facility. It killed the infamous harbour “bubble,” ending the release of raw sewage. But for the wastewater coming through the system at St. John’s, the federal regulations demand more.
The Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations were introduced under the federal Fisheries Act in 2012. They were phased in, coming into force Jan. 1, 2015. Places not meeting the standards for wastewater treatment could be issued “transitional authorizations,” essentially giving them more time to come into line. The federal government evaluated wastewater samples and system profiles to dictate HIGH, MEDIUM or LOW-risk locations from an environmental perspective. Depending on the category, communities were given until 2020, 2030 or 2040 to upgrade their wastewater treatment.
Breen has argued the City of St. John’s was wrongly classified in the process, with samples being taken at a time the Riverhead facility was not fully functioning. If the review had landed at another time, he believes the city would have been granted until 2030 for its upgrade.
He says city staff have been in contact with federal staff responsible for tracking compliance with the regulations. The city was told a review, the possibility of an extension to 2030, wasn’t an option.
“The Regulations set out an administrative process that does not appear to provide for any meaningful review, reconsideration, or appeal of the allocation of points or the duration of the authorization,” Breen states in response, in his Feb. 27 letter to the ministers for Environment and Climate Change Canada; Infrastructure and Communities; and Intergovernmental Affairs and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade, copied to area MPs and other municipalities.
The mayor says there is reasonable rationale for an extension to be granted, and that the city is owed a second look, given “a duty of procedural fairness.”
In information released at the time of the change in wastewater regulations, Environment and Climate Change Canada noted the new wastewater standards were introduced to address the more than 150 billion litres of untreated and undertreated sewage entering Canadian waters every year. Many municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador continue to struggle to establish primary wastewater treatment.