From The Ottawa Citizen - April 4, 2008

City to study cost of cutting Ottawa River pollution


City bureaucrats have been instructed to find ways to stop human feces from contaminating the Ottawa River. The cost is likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Members of the community and protective services committee asked for a set of costedout options after a hearing yesterday into water quality problems at Petrie Island beach. E. coli bacteria have often been found in the river off the beach, making it unsafe for swimmers.

Old downtown sewers are prime suspects in the contamination. A large portion of the core has one set of sewer pipes, instead of separate sanitary and stormwater systems. Under normal conditions, the contents of the sewers is pumped to the sewage-treatment plant just upstream from the beach in the Green’s Creek area, along with the rest of the city’s sewage.

However, raw sewage mixed with stormwater routinely overwhelms the sewers’ capacity during heavy rains, and the overflow is discharged directly into the river. A holding tank to create more storage space to stop this was estimated last year to cost $60 million.

The sewage-treatment plant meets all environmental regulations. But the city’s medical officer of health, Dr. David Salisbury, said the Ottawa River is absorbing more and more waste along its whole length, and perhaps can’t dilute even legally permissible levels of waste in the treatment plant’s effluent.

With E. coli a problem at all city beaches, the committee decided to find out once and for all how much it would cost to stop the pollution.

That way, Councillor Diane Holmes said, the city will know if it can fix the problem, or if councillors should “admit our mistake” in approving the manmade beach at Petrie Island.

Scientists warned of water quality problems before council OK’d the project in 2003. If the problems prove insoluble, the city might close the beach entirely.

“Staff recommended against this beach, knowing it was downstream from our sewage treatment plant, and surprise, surprise, it’s contaminated,” Ms. Holmes said. “Human beings have been content to pollute the environment, and this is an example of what happens. We have to decide if we are prepared to stop it, or we are content to pollute ourselves right out of existence.”

Dr. Salisbury said the choices are simple: stop allowing human waste into the river at current rates or accept that water quality is going to get even worse.

Orléans Councillor Bob Monette, whose ward includes the beach, said he felt Petrie Island was being unfairly singled out for criticism by the media, since its water quality is no worse than at other city beaches.

In 2007, the beach was closed for six days due to high E. coli counts. In 2006, the beach was closed to swimmers for 45 days because of E. coli in the water and was open 26 days; in 2005, it was closed for 15 days.

Dr. Salisbury said 2007 was a particularly dry year, so the water was better than normal, and 2006 was wetter than normal, so the water was worse.

To illustrate his point, he highlighted the findings of Environment Canada researchers who studied water quality at the beach last summer.

They found that even though it was a dry year, water quality was most significantly affected by “fecal contamination sources on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River in 2007.” The staff report on what it would cost to stop polluting the river is expected in a year.

-The Ottawa Citizen-