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A bad case of STP

Tribune-Express, vendredi 2 mai 2008

FOCUS: A bad case of STP

There is no doubt about it, Hawkesburgers - you are in deep doo-doo. Your sewage predicament is going to cost you big time.

But, hey, effluent happens. And on the bright side, if you really want to get into it, you can expand your vocabulary and use terms that you haven't heard since high school. For example, take NH3-N (ammonia nitrogen), a key factor in determining the final bill for the waste water cure. The existing Main Street plant could be expanded, at a cost of $26.4 million or $42.2 million. The high-end alternative will be necessary if the Ontario government demands that nitrification, the process which renders ammonia non-toxic, be part of the town's treatment method. A brand new facility would cost $39.6 million, or not. "This is a ballpark estimate," consulting engineer Rick Eamon said at a recent information session. The actual costs could turn out to be 50 per cent higher or 30 per cent lower than the ones tossed out at the meeting. Ballpark? Where is the warning track in this ballpark? Alfred?

Anyway, costs ought to be firmed up when the environmental assessment process (EAP) wraps up in May. Regardless of the option chosen, whether the price rockets out of the park or rolls short of the pitcher's mound, the town, which is already swimming in debt (IOU), is going to have to pay a whopper of a bill to fix its chronic sewage mess.

As you know, since 2005, the Hawkesbury water pollution control plant (WPCP) has failed to comply with its certificate of approval (CofA). Its readings for carbonaceous biological oxygen demand (CBOD), total suspended solids (TSS), e.coli, (really bad stuff), and total phosphorous (TP) have been red-lining. So we will pause here so we can all go online and enter a chat room and enjoy a lively discussion of the validity of CBOD on primary effluent and influent. Whew! Good times!

All right, enough of that goofing around. Back to the design criteria. Let's see, the new facility would have capacity for an average daily flow (ADF) of 14,800 cubic metres, compared to the current ADF of 12,247 cubic metres. A new waste water treatment plant (WWTP) would be based on one of the following technologies: extended aeration (including new clarifiers), sequencing batch reactor (SBR), a moving bed bioreactor (MBBR), or the membrane bioreactor (MBR).

The public has been encouraged to share its comments on the alternatives. Consultation is a standard EA component. But, apart from noting that the best option (BO) would be the $26.4 million expansion job, what would a person contribute to the process? Is someone going to oppose the resolution to problems which have prompted the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) to take the town to court and which have resulted in a development freeze? Anything is possible.

The sewage saga has at times stretched the limits of credulity. As we learned last fall, the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), which runs the plant for the town, could not, for a period of at least seven years, accurately gauge the situation. A flow meter did not properly function between 1998 and 2005, meaning that volumes could have been underestimated by as much as 30 per cent. To complicate things, some data will never be found because some records had been stolen during a break-in. Has the criminal element fallen on such hard times that the crooks are breaking into the sewage plant? ("Hey, buddy, want to buy some hot BOD reports? Check out the TSS on this baby.")

There seems to be a serious document storage problem in Hawkesbury. Ask businessman Jean Jolicoeur who is still offering a reward for the location of certain missing municipal documents which he says are crucial to his lawsuit against the town.

Considering the issues with the plant, the municipality may have sought a credit on the $446,000 annual fee it paid to OCWA, a provincial Crown agency. OCWA had been flushed, briefly. At the end of 2006, the town was to drop the agency and hire its own employees to operate the facility. Two employees had been hired and a third was scheduled to be hired. But immediately after the November, 2006 election, council reversed its decision, extended the OCWA contract to December 31, 2007 and dismissed the two operators. Late last year, the deal was extended by another year, at an annual fee of $406,000.

Meanwhile, the town faces a hefty fine because the plant consistently broke the law. If it is lucky, the town will be able to negotiate an out-of-court settlement and get off with a slap on the wrist.

Once it has a firm price on the sewage solution, town council will try to convince the federal and provincial governments to cover 90 per cent of the bill. The government built the plant in 1971 and transferred it to the town in 1994. Council will argue Hawkesbury got dumped on and local taxpayers ought not be forced to pay for government decisions.

Pleading poverty could also work. The town has huge long-term debts, is incurring debts on its water and sewage services and already has the highest property taxes in Prescott-Russell. If big relief on the sewage plant fix is not received, the town could be a BC, basket case. And soon taxpayers will be experiencing a condition known as STP : Sick and tired of poop.

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