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Peter Kelly wears the sewage disaster 

Because the mayor won’t release the new forensic audit and break the wall of secrecy around Halifax’s broken sewage treatment plant, he'll end up owning the whole mess.

[Editor’s note: this story is one of five Coast articles selected as finalists for the 2010 Atlantic Journalism Awards. All five stories are collected here.]

"It's a frustration," allows Peter Kelly. Throughout a half-hour interview in his City Hall office, Kelly seems genuinely pained by the course of events related to Halifax's failed sewage treatment plant, and does his best to get ahead of the single issue that has come to define his third term as mayor.

"When times were good and the plant kicked in and was operational, the water quality came back fairly quickly, we were able to enjoy the harbour to swim and do all those other things that we bragged about," he says. "And here we are, less than a year afterwards; it's frustrating. And it's a bit on the"---he pauses, searches for the words, shrugs---"embarrassing side, or on the hurtful side.

"But the fact is, things happen." A less refined mayor would say shit happens.

"You have to deal with it," he continues. "You can't run from it. And that's what's happening---not a day goes by when I'm not over there asking what's going on, and not a day goes by when our staff is not focused on getting this plant back in operation."

That is undoubtedly true. There's no indication that Kelly or Carl Yates (manager of the Halifax Water Commission) or anyone else at city hall isn't working diligently to get the sewer plant fixed as soon as possible.

But the plant can't be fixed until it's known what went wrong with it in the first place; any successful repair job depends on making sure the same thing doesn't happen again. And naming what went wrong is, by extension, assigning fault---first to machinery or employees, but secondarily, to engineering and construction standards or operational procedures at the plant. Ultimately, knowing what went wrong will necessarily lead to assigning fault to the city and/or the two major contractors involved in building the sewage system---Dexter Construction and Degremont Ltee.

And that's a discussion Kelly doesn't want to have.

Kelly continues to defend the decision to keep secret a preliminary report of what went wrong with the plant. That report cost taxpayers about $100,000---it's part of a $400,000 contract with CH2M Hill, a Colorado-based engineering firm hired by the city to investigate the sewer plant failure.

The preliminary report was given to Kelly last week, on June 15, and he admits to reading it. "It points in a direction of cause," is the most he will say of the report's contents.

It's a good bet that the failure of the $54- million plant will eventually end up in court, with Dexter, Degremont and the city battling it out, either directly or between their respective insurance companies. Kelly said last week that the report can't be made public because it involves potential litigation, legal issues being one of the justifications for secrecy in Nova Scotia's Municipal Act.

"We have lawyers involved with this," said Kelly last week. "These issues are deemed to be sensitive, until we come to a conclusion."

But Kelly acknowledges that the report has been given to the other "stakeholders" in the plant---that is, to Dexter and Degremont.

Got that? Dexter and Degremont, the corporate entities that the city will likely face in a courtroom, were given the report because they are "stakeholders." But the public continues to be denied access to the report because the city might end up in court...against Dexter and Degremont, which already have the report.

At least, that was the justification last week. This week, Kelly's reason for keeping the preliminary report secret from the public has changed: The report is secret because it is preliminary.

"You wouldn't go to a doctor," he explains with an analogy he uses three times in the interview, "and, hear the doctor say, 'it could be this, this or this,' and put you over the edge in terms of thinking it's some terminal disease or something else---you would want him to state the fact, rather than just say, 'it could be this, this or this.' You would want him to deal with what is, not what could be."

I raise the obvious objection: Actually, I'd want my doctor to keep me fully informed all through the process. I'd want her to tell me that it might be this, it might be this other thing or possibly a third thing, and we're going to do these tests to find out which. Being part of the process of investigation will keep me more involved in the treatment, which can only be a good thing.

"Right," responds Kelly, "and that's what we're doing now."

But the report is secret, and so the public isn't part of the process, I point out.

"We are there," says Kelly. "The staff is there, on behalf of the public, to make sure that process is maintained and done."

This is the very definition of a paternalistic government. The information is just too frightening for the public's childlike ears. If we get anything other than the complete, final story, contextualized and message-managed by a horde of communications specialists, it might send us "over the edge," rioting in the streets, perhaps, or into a fit of messy participatory democracy. And Kelly doesn't want that, evidently.

Good enough. If Kelly can't trust the public to handle information about the sewer plant, then he owns it---all of it. Not just the report, but the events themselves, the causes, the mistakes, the breakdowns, the whole ball of wax.

It's Peter Kelly's sewer plant failure.

Harbour No Solutions

The sewer plant was just one piece of the $333-million Harbour Solutions project, which aimed to address Halifax's centuries-long and shameful practice of dumping raw sewage directly into the harbour.

Building a sewage system in an older city like Halifax is no simple matter, because the city was built with no thought for sewage disposal. Before the 20th century, sewage from toilets was routed to storm-water sewers, and that was the end of it---rainwater and toilet water ran out the same pipes to the harbour. Modern cities (and Halifax's suburbs) have two sets of pipes: one to carry rainwater straight to the harbour; the other set taking toilet water to a sewage treatment plant.

The ideal solution to Halifax's problem would have been to dig up every street in the city and put down two new pipes, one connected to the sanitary sewers coming from houses and businesses, the second connected to the gutters and storm drains that carry rain. But the cost of installing two sets of pipes over the entire city would have been very large---several billion dollars, likely.

Instead, as the plans were developed around 2005, city officials, engineers and environmental regulators decided upon a less costly, compromised system.

At the time, several dozen pipes carrying both human sewage and rainwater dumped into the harbour. It was decided to plug each of those pipes into one of eight "combined sewage overflows." The CSOs would in turn collect the contents of the pipes and shunt it off to a five-metre wide, kilometre-long tunnel drilled through the bedrock under downtown that brings the whole mess to the newly constructed sewage treatment plant at Barrington and Cornwallis Streets.

(A similar system was constructed around a new Dartmouth plant.)

But because the pipes carry toilet water and rainwater, when it rains, an awful lot of water can enter the system. Harbour Solutions was designed to handle up to four times the amount of liquid that would flow through the pipes on a typical sunny day. More than that, and the excess---including the human sewage component of the pipes---overflows through outfalls at the harbour shore---overflow is the "O" part of CSO.

Those who designed the system were comfortable with diverting this sewage-laden water into the harbour for two reasons. First, each of the CSOs would have a screen to catch the bigger pieces of it, the so-called "floatables," and after the rain ended the screens would be cleaned to get them ready for the next rain. Second, since the sewage would only flow into the harbour during heavy rains, bacterial levels in the harbour would be watered down to acceptable levels.

And it worked, at least for a while.

The sewer plant opened officially in February, 2008 and by last summer, harbour water was clean enough for Peter Kelly to triumphantly go swimming at Black Rock Beach.

How was the CSO system working? We really don't know. Carl Yates from the Water Commission, which operates the sewage system, told me earlier this year that there are no records for how many times the system overflowed, or what volumes of water lapped through the CSOs.

But councillor Sue Uteck tracks 52 rain events from February, 2008 to January 14, 2009. "And for 51 of them, there was no problem," she says wryly.

Shit storm

It's possible to piece together the broad outlines of what happened in the early hours of Wednesday, January 14.

A heavy and wet winter storm sent enormous volumes of water through the system and, as usual, power outages rolled through the city. The sewage plant lost power at 2:24am, and the back-up diesel generators at the plant kicked in.

There were no operators working at the plant at the time---officials insist none were necessary---but an on-call operator was notified and arrived at the plant within 20 minutes. She restarted all the necessary equipment, and successfully so, claimed Water Commission spokesperson James Campbell in a February press briefing.

But Nova Scotia Power's service to the plant wasn't restored for another three hours---not until 5:56am. During that time the plant's back-up power system failed.

The large tunnel that feeds sewage from the CSOs to the treatment plant enters the plant 85 feet below the surface. When operating properly, five pumps lift the sewage up through a dry well, to the plant proper, where the sewage is treated.

It's unclear exactly why, but on January 14, a gigantic valve failed. The valve is essentially an iron door eight feet in diameter that was intended to close the plant off from the tunnel. Campbell said the valve was stuck open about three inches.

With the iron door ajar, the sewage and water quickly filled the dry well, and then the basement of the plant, where it deluged the plant's motor control centre and heating system. All the electrical work in the basement was shorted out as well.

In short, the plant was a shit-filled disaster scene.

Before they could clean up the mess in the plant, officials had to stop more sewage from coming in, so they opened the CSOs completely. All sewage has flowed out through the CSOs ever since---about 100 million litres every day. And after a few months, officials found that the screens at the CSOs couldn't operate continuously, so they were removed. We're back to floatables in the harbour.

Before Harbour Solutions was built, the sewage came through dozens of pipes into the harbour, which served to at least spread it out a bit. Now, however, the sewage is coming through just eight CSOs and so is more concentrated. And several of those outfalls are in tourist areas---next to the cruise ship terminal, adjacent to the Maritime Museum, at Bishop's Landing, under the casino.

Clean-up of the plant took about two months. Like airplanes, sewer plants have a "black box" that records all technical operation and can be used to reconstruct what happened in the event of an accident. The black box at Halifax's plant was used by CH2M Hill to conduct a "forensic audit" of the plant---that is, to write the report that mayor Kelly refuses to release.

Whatever the results of the forensic audit, we know that much of the equipment in the sewage-filled plant will have to be replaced. It is not off-the-shelf equipment, and so each piece will have to be specially built.

Since the January disaster, Water Commission officials have said they expected the plant to be up and running again "by spring 2010." Last week, however, a report to city council mentions that "staff has provided a preliminary estimate that the WWTF [Halifax sewage plant] will be fully operational by late Spring 2010." The emphasis was not in the report---besides the insertion of the word "late," the Water Commission gave no indication of a changed timeline.

Does the added word "late" mean the date for fixing the plant been pushed back?

"It's still spring of 2010," says Kelly.

Speculation

So why did the plant fail?

The most obvious problem is the failure of the huge iron door to close off the tunnel. Was the drive for the door too low in the plant? That is, did the water rush through and up the dry well to short out the drive before the door could close all the way?

Whatever the proximate cause of the disaster---whatever combination of equipment malfunctions and/or improper procedures led to the inundation of the basement motor control centre---there seems to be an underlying design flaw in the plant. As the sewage filled the dry well, reaching towards the equipment in the plant basement, why didn't it run through a bypass---an opening at the top of the dry well, just below the basement (imagine the little holes just below the rim of your bathroom sink)---that would let the sewage escape before reaching the basement?

Had there been such a bypass, the plant would have been down for a short period---maybe a few days, maybe a couple of weeks---but could have been quickly restarted after the problem was identified and solved. Because there wasn't a bypass, we have to wait until late spring of 2010, as officials scramble to rebuild the plant components.

Yates says the Nova Scotia Department of Environment wouldn't allow a bypass in the plant design. For their part, officials at the Department of Environment say they can't comment on design issues because the plant failure is under investigation.

But a regulatory prohibition against a sewage plant bypass makes no sense. After all, the entire CSO system is itself a plant bypass---designers clearly placed the eight-foot iron door between the tunnel and the plant precisely for the purpose of protecting the plant by being able to stop sewage from flowing into the plant and instead divert the sewage through the CSOs to the harbour. From an environmental protection standpoint, what difference would it make to put a bypass in the plant itself?

The political disaster

Regardless, we don't really know what went wrong because Kelly won't release the CH2M Hill report.

The refusal to make public that report is part of a pattern of secrecy that has characterized the city's response to the crisis from the beginning. Officials didn't hold their first media briefing concerning the January 14 disaster until February 7, and still won't allow the press into the plant.

On May 27, the city submitted another report on the sewer plant failure to Environment Canada. Citing an ongoing investigation, federal officials declined to release the report. I asked Kelly to make that report public, and he likewise declined.

Worse still, Kelly is keeping the forensic audit---the CH2M Hill report that has already been given to Dexter and Degremont---secret not just from the public, but also from the rest of city council.

"I don't know by what authority one member of council, the mayor, can see secret documents, and the rest of us can't," says Uteck. When that issue is put directly to Kelly, he becomes elusive, finding again the circular argument that the report is preliminary, so while he can read it, council can't.

"When I met with staff a week ago or so," says Kelly, "I had asked for a copy of the report. I felt that I needed to see it. Staff indicated at that time they still needed more information, but I still wanted to have the chance to read through it, and I did. And clearly, it does point out that there is additional data needed to come to a more conclusive outcome. And with that, it is in our hands, and is coming back to council next week, and council will be given an overview at that time."

Kelly says the final report will "hopefully" be given to the public at the June 30 council meeting as well.

The culture of secrecy that surrounds the sewer issue is not of Kelly's making. Water Commission staff have long worked diligently and capably below the public radar screen, never before having to deal with high-interest public concerns like a lemon of a sewer plant. They didn't, and still don't, understand the need for full public participation. The city's legal staff, too, has a knee-jerk response to making information public: Everything is confidential unless there's some reason for it not to be. The presumption is secrecy, not openness.

But Kelly could rise above the culture of secrecy, using his bully pulpit to insist that all documents be made public, that officials speak with candour, that the public be informed and involved. "We trust the public," he could say.

Instead, he takes the equivocating politician route. Last week he issued a half-hearted "apology" for "doing a bad job in communicating" with regard to the sewer plant issue. Owning up to mistakes is laudable, but if the apology isn't matched with a change in behaviour, what purpose does it serve? In the week since Kelly's apology, he has released no new information, continues to defend on-going secrecy and has issued no directives to staff underscoring the public's right to be involved.

For Kelly, it's business as usual.

Tim Bousquet is news editor at The Coast.

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