A sewage lagoon planned near the banks of the Red River has pitted homeowners and the Lake Winnipeg Foundation against the province and a rural municipality north of Winnipeg.
The lagoon, to go on the site of an old dynamite plant in East Selkirk, will discharge treated effluent directly into the Red River, along with carcinogens that could poison fish stocks, critics say.
Manitoba Conservation gave the RM of St. Clements its nod of approval for the project earlier this month.
The province argued the lagoon is a big improvement over the untreated effluent that leaked so often from so many septic fields, that tap water wasn't safe to drink.
Conservation officials contend the lagoon didn't get a free pass -- a private engineering firm and Conservation officials carried out extensive testing for carcinogens and pollutants before Conservation signed off on it this month.
'It's going to be a huge problem for the Red River and for Lake Winnipeg'
"There was no concern that could be met under licensing conditions. It will significantly reduce nutrients going into Lake Winnipeg," said Tracey Braun, Manitoba Conservation's director of environmental approvals.
"The licence has 48 terms and conditions on it. It's a fairly stringent licence," Braun said.
Opponents staged a rally Thursday evening in a bid to gain public support to appeal the licence and halt the project.
"We want everyone to know what's happening here," said Al Prue, the homeowner who's leading the campaign. About 60 people own homes near the area, and most have signed a petition against the lagoon.
"We were outraged a lagoon is going on the Red River like that but (then) we found out it's a contaminated site that could dump into the Red River. It's going to be a huge problem for the Red River and for Lake Winnipeg," Prue said.
The primary concern is not human health, but contaminants left over from the old dynamite factory that could be a danger to fish stocks in the river.
A 2011 engineering report showed the site was contaminated with dinitrotoluenes, which are carcinogenic and toxic.
Adding a layer of complication is a second report conducted this year for the RM as part of the province's environmental assessment process. It concluded there was no evidence of contamination.
Homeowner Dennis Petaski, whose father was a contract worker in the 1950s at the former CIL explosives plant, was suspicious about that inconsistency. Petaski took both reports to experts for an explanation.
Petaski said an expert with the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States warned him the latest tests -- for the provincial licence -- hadn't been done properly: The chemicals wouldn't have shown up, even though in all likelihood they are still there, Petaski said.
That may explain why people who don't live in the area are worried.
"We do have concerns about this proposed lagoon," said Lake Winnipeg Foundation outreach co-ordinator Vicki Burns.
She said the foundation was disappointed when the Clean Environment Commission turned down its calls for an inquiry into the project.
The foundation argued the lagoon poses three major risks to the Red River and Lake Winnipeg.
"First of all, it's very close to the edge of the river, less than a half mile from the banks," Burns said. "Number two, it's an old dynamite-manufacturing site and according to the initial report, those carcinogens are still in the ground. If they leak, they could pose a danger to fish."
Finally, the type of lagoon poses a greater risk than other kinds of lagoons. Burns said effluent could leach into the river, adding more nutrients to feed blue-green algae blooms that threaten Lake Winnipeg.
St. Clements Mayor Steve Strang dismissed the concerns Thursday.
He said he'd like to see a lagoon filtered through wetlands at the site, the kind Burns proposes. It's similar to one the RM built at Grand Marias. But this current plan is all the RM can afford.
Even so, the lagoon will pose less of a risk than a sewage-treatment plant where accidental discharges are a bigger concern, the mayor insisted.
"We're doing everything possible to ensure that site is safe, otherwise our council wouldn't have approved it," the mayor said.