Council notes: sewage update

As I mentioned in today's paper, Halifax Water manager Carl Yates provided an update on the repairs to the sewage plant at Tuesday's council meeting.

Councillor Steve Streatch used the occasion of Yates' appearance to lambast the media generally for making the plant failure into a bad news story. At that point, councillor David Hendsbee pointed directly at me, implying that I'm somehow misreporting or inaccurately spinning the news.

The present-day situation, claimed Streatch, is no worse than what Halifax had been doing for "hundreds and hundreds of years," and therefore shouldn't be a big deal. Councillor Jerry Blumenthal backed up those comments, and I hear some variation on this argument quite regularly-- we were dumping raw sewage into the harbour two years ago, we're dumping raw sewage into the harbour again now, so what?

That line of reasoning is dishonest, and Streatch and Blumenthal know it. Anyone who has been anywhere near the boardwalk-- heck, anyone walking into City Hall, four blocks up from the boardwalk-- knows that the odours associated with the raw sewage are far worse than the odours of the past.

There's an explanation for why the odours are worse: before the sewage plant was built, sewage was discharged through several dozen pipes spread along the harbour and Northwest Arm, which tended to spread out the sewage and disperse the odours somewhat. But the Harbour Solutions project plugged each of those pipes into a new system with just eight "combined sewage overflows"--and the four largest of those are along the boardwalk. This concentrates the majority of the sewage and the related stink in the downtown area.

So, no, it's not "just like" it was for hundreds of years. It's far worse.

Not to mention, ya know, the $333 million spent for something that broke almost as soon as it was turned on.

If that's bad news, it's not my fault.

That said, I don't at all fault Halifax Water for the problems associated with the plant. Halifax Water had nothing to do with the crappy design decisions that went into the plant, and nothing to do with oversight of construction, both of which appear to be responsible for the plant failure of January 14. Halifax Water was handed a lemon of a plant, and has to deal with it best they can. In my opinion, the technical response from Halifax Water is flawless.

Moreover, there's a lot of unfounded accusations out there. Green Party leader Elizabeth May, quoted in this morning's Chronicle-Herald, seems to want to wade in on the issue somehow, and cites violations of the Fisheries Act. There may be some truth in that, but I fail to see any willful action on the city's part in breaking the plant (stupid contracting is another issue...), so I don't see exactly what fining the city will accomplish.

Then there's this:

John Werring of the David Suzuki Foundation said the federal Environment Department should prosecute the city because it didn’t act to fix the plant as quickly as it could have.

"In this case with Halifax, they’re just putting it off," he said. "They decided that they wanted to go and assign blame and see who was responsible for the damage and who was going to pay for it rather than fix it and get it up and running and then do that. I wouldn’t call that being duly diligent, not in this case.

That's simply wrong. On the contrary, repairs of the plant are moving forward without assigning blame. For certain, the city commissioned a forensic audit to find out why the plant broke, but that made perfect sense: it was prudent to find out exactly what went wrong before starting repairs, lest the entire scenario repeat itself.

On this issue, the Suzuki Foundation is all wet, and doesn't know what it's talking about. Halifax Water is working with all diligence to repair the plant and get it in working operation quickly. I've always believed that, and have never said otherwise.

I do, however, fault Yates for his role in the keeping facts, and especially the forensic audit, from the public. Immediately after the plant failure, Yates wasn't speaking publicly at all, and it was like pulling teeth getting information from Halifax Water. Yates has come around considerably-- he now makes himself available, and answers most of my questions. Probably because it was clear I had already pieced it together, but he confirmed parts of my analysis of how the plant broke, and I appreciate that.

That's not to say unwarranted secrecy isn't still an issue. I asked to attend today's meeting of the Water Commission, and Yates disallowed it, saying the meetings are not open to the public. (I believe he's wrong about this, and I intend to challenge him on it). Moreover, the forensic audit still hasn't been released, and there's continued secrecy around the ill-fated Pumping Station A, at Barrington and Inglis Streets.

These issues of secrecy are important, because the information being hidden gets to the heart of how the city conducts business. The sewage plant failure is not a one time act of god, but rather a system failure-- a bureaucratic system failure. If we're to avoid having other system failures in the future, it will take public knowledge and understanding of what went wrong, and that won't happen if the details of the sewage plant failure are locked up in a safe.

To summarize: it is indeed a big deal that the sewage plant is broken. And, yes, Halifax Water is moving as quickly and responsibly as they can to fix the problem, but there are still problems with unwarranted secrecy.

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