Week-long sewage spill a health, environmental danger, expert says City blames unexpected weather, equipment failure as nearly 52 million — and counting — foul-smelling litres flow into Assiniboine River
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/03/2022 (193 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Nearly 52 million litres of diluted sewage spilled into Winnipeg waters over the past week, raising concerns about human health and the environment.
The city began diverting a mix of wastewater and snow melt into the Assiniboine River on March 16 when a temporary sewage pump — in place while the city replaces a Portage Avenue interceptor sewer pipe — was unable to keep up with the flow.
The smelly mess has continued to spill into the river for several hours each day since.
A water-protection activist said the consequences could be quite serious, based on samples taken in 2021 when a combined sewer overflow dumped diluted sewage into the Assiniboine.
“The E. coli and the fecal coliform levels from those samples were literally off the charts, above the lab’s testing levels,” said Alexis Kanu, an environmental scientist and executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.
“I would expect something similar for this spill that’s happening right now. That can make people sick, that can impact habitat for aquatic organisms and that’s not even considering the phosphorus that’s getting into the waterways which, as we all know, is what’s driving the algal blooms on Lake Winnipeg.”
Kanu questioned the city’s decision to time a pipe replacement project to end in March, since documents show frozen conditions were expected to help prevent environmental damage.
“Spring happened in March, which is an entirely predictable thing…. There’s no foresight, no consequences when spills happen like this,” she said, adding a greater effort is needed to prevent spills such as this one.
“The E. coli and the fecal coliform levels from those samples were literally off the charts, above the lab’s testing levels.”
– Alexis Kanu, environmental scientist and executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation
“I think consequences would help. It seems that this stuff just happens and our governments excuse it away. We need to maintain our disgust at stuff like this; it cannot become par for the course. It cannot become part of an expected outcome of maintaining our city that we’re just treating our rivers like toilets.”
City officials say the construction project should have wrapped up without incident earlier this month, avoiding the problem. Instead, unexpected problems — including bitterly cold temperatures and blizzard conditions — delayed work, said Cynthia Wiebe, the city’s acting director of water and waste.
And on top of the weather issues, a pipe connector unexpectedly disintegrated upon installation and needed to be replaced, said Wiebe.
As the project pushed past its initial March 11 completion date, the winter’s abnormally large volume of snow began to melt and, combined with wastewater, exceeded the temporary pumping system’s capacity.
“We’re always trying to do whatever we can to protect the environment. Without this it would have gone into people’s basements, so that’s a public health and safety issue. And had we not done this controlled discharge that we did, it would have flooded out the construction site.”
– Cynthia Wiebe, acting director of water and waste for City of Winnipeg
“We did have bypass pumping set up, we did have additional pumps for snow melt… we just had significantly more (snow melt) than was anticipated,” said Wiebe.
Without the discharge into the river, she said sewage would have backed up elsewhere.
“We’re always trying to do whatever we can to protect the environment. Without this it would have gone into people’s basements, so that’s a public health and safety issue. And had we not done this controlled discharge that we did, it would have flooded out the construction site,” she said.
While she expects the spill will end Thursday, Wiebe said the increased discharge over the past few days contains a large percentage of melted snow, meaning the sewage should be highly diluted.
The spill occurred mainly from the Tylehurst Street outfall and triggered some complaints in the Wolseley area. It also involved sewage outfalls on Ferry Road and Portage Avenue.
Wiebe said the construction project was needed to replace a pipe nearing the end of its useful life.
She confirmed this sewage release is, thus far, the largest in 2022 and said crews are working “around-the-clock” to end it.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can to limit the impact and get this operational as quick as possible,” she said.
While this particular incident was not caused by weather alone, the head of the city’s environment committee said it underlines a general need for investment to improve sewage treatment.
“These things keep happening, they’re disgusting, people don’t like them.… We should be picking up the pace on (sewage upgrades)”
– Coun. Brian Mayes.
“These things keep happening, they’re disgusting, people don’t like them.… We should be picking up the pace on (sewage upgrades),” said Coun. Brian Mayes.
Mayes noted the city recently voted to increase its annual investment to reduce combined sewer overflows from $30 million to $45 million per year between 2024 and 2027, which he believes shows a commitment to better protect local waterways.
“There’s a 50 per cent increase in the budget for each of four years, so we are listening (and) we are responding… we’re aware there’s a problem out there and we’re picking up the pace to try to deal with it,” he said.
Combined sewer overflows occur when heavy rain or snow overwhelms older sewers that collect precipitation and wastewater in a single pipe, causing them to overflow into rivers. About 5.6 billion litres of diluted sewage flowed into local waterways through combined sewer overflows in 2020, the most recent data available.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
Updated on Friday, March 25, 2022 9:49 AM CDT: Corrects that about 5.6 billion litres of diluted sewage flowed into local waterways through combined sewer overflows in 2020
Updated on Friday, March 25, 2022 10:57 AM CDT: Corrects time reference to when samples were taken