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Hawkesbury sewage: Getting to the bottom of the "crisis"

Tribune-Express, vendredi 1 février 2008

Hawkesbury sewage: Getting to the bottom of the "crisis"
par Richard Mahoney

Mayor Jeanne Charlebois wants taxpayers to know that the town of Hawkesbury is acting to resolve its long-standing sewage problems which have prompted the Ontario government to take legal action against the municipality.

Representatives of Thompson Rosemount Group, the Cornwall-based engineering firm working for the town, are being asked to attend a meeting to explain the town's short-term and long-term action plans, as well as the benefits of having water meters installed.

The province action against the town for alleged environmental infractions is scheduled to resume in March.

Meanwhile, Ontario Ministry of the Environment lawyer Paul McCulloch told Provincial Offences Act Court in L'Orignal recently that "numerous discussions" are taking place concerning the case that was initiated by the ministry last year.

The ministry alleges that the municipality's sewage treatment system has been operating in contravention of provincial law. Ministry spokesperson Kate Jordan explained that the town has been charged with two alleged offences under the Ontario Water Resources Act. The first count contends that the town's facility has exceeded the conditions of its certificate of approval, and the second contends that as the owner of the facility, the municipality is responsible for the offence.

If convicted, the town faces a minimum fine of $25,000 and a maximum fine of $6 million.

Moving forward

Charlebois has refused to comment on recent statements by the Hawkesbury Citizens' Association which argues that an inquiry by the Ontario Ombudsman, not legal action, is the best and cheapest way of getting to the bottom of the problem.

"There is no use in going into what happened in the past. We are moving on with finding short-term and long-term solutions. We have to move forward. I cannot answer for what previous councils have done," Charlebois said recently.

The association, while stating that citizens are "not ready to pay for the laxism of others," contends that taxpayers want to know the circumstances that led to the "crisis" the town is now facing. Taxpayers will have to foot the bill for a long and costly court case, notes the group. The association suggests that the government opt for a cheaper alternative, such as an investigation by the Ombudsman.

"The citizen wants to know why the laws were not respected after several warnings and why the governments were so slow in acting," association founder Jean Jolicoeur declares. The intervention of the Ombudsman would save money for town ratepayers, who are already over-taxed, he adds.

"Troubling" findings

A report submitted to town council by the Thompson Rosemont Group November 5 found that the Ontario Clean Water Agency, which manages the plant on behalf of the town, could not for several years accurately gauge the problems at the sewage treatment plant.

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.

While the plant produces about 14,000 cubic metres of sludge annually, the Ontario Clean Water Agency disposes of about 6,000 cubic metres, mostly by spreading it on farmland.

The other 8,000 cubic metres of waste go into the nearby Ottawa River.

At the November 5 meeting, when Mike Eamon, vice-president and senior engineer with the Thompson Rosemont Group, commented, "You have a lot of solids going into the river that should be spread on land," the town's interim technical services director Richard Guertin remarked: "It's cheaper."

Transferred to town in 1994

Built in 1978, the plant was owned and operated by the Ontario government until the province transferred the facility to the municipality in 1994. However, some of the records on the operation will never be found. Years ago, "We had a break and enter and some of that data was lost," said Harold Wilkinson, Assistant Operations Manager with OCWA. The citizens' association will press for more information concerning those missing documents, says Jolicoeur, relating that people are intrigued by the "troubling" information and concerned about the possible "disastrous" financial repercussions. Ratepayers wonder how the town could find itself in such a situation considering that the public has been told in the past that the municipality has been well administered, remarks Jolicoeur.

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