City hall has dismissed as unworkable an interim solution to reduce phosphorus being discharged from its north end sewage treatment plant and has asked the province for more time to deal with the issue.
The plant has been identified as the single major contributor to the toxic algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg.
The city had faced a Dec. 31 deadline to reduce emissions of phosphorus from the plant. On Tuesday, the city submitted a formal notice to the province requesting more time to develop a new plan.
In a separate email to council members Wednesday, a senior official from the water and waste department said nothing can be done in the interim to reduce phosphorus levels to comply with the Environment Act.
The email, from acting director Tim Shanks, dismissed a joint proposal from the Lake Winnipeg Foundation and the International Institute of Sustainable Development. They had suggested ferric chloride be used as a quick and inexpensive fix. It has been used successfully by several other municipalities in Eastern Canada and the U.S. to reduce phosphorus concentrations in effluent discharges.
Shanks said the department had explored several alternative interim methods to reduce the phosphorus concentration, but none of them worked.
"After a review of capacities and process risks, it was determined that there are no interim options that will be able to reduce phosphorus to the standards required... by our Environment Licence Act," Shanks wrote in his email to council.
Officials from the foundation and the institute were surprised the city rejected their proposal, and they disputed the city’s conclusions.
"Our members are experiencing horrible algae blooms on the lake right now," said Alexis Kanu, executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation. "People want change. People want action. They are not content with the status quo any longer."
Kanu said the province should demand the city adopt its interim solution, adding she believes it will become an issue in the provincial election.
Coun. Jeff Browaty said the water and waste department needs to explain why the ferric chloride proposal can’t be implemented.
"Before we write it off, it would be irresponsible for the city to do nothing if we can make meaningful reductions in phosphorus loads now," Browaty said.
Phosphorus discharges from the north end plant were measured at concentration levels of 3.54 milligrams per litre in 2017, but the provincial operating licence requires the city to reduce the concentration levels to 1 mg/L by Dec. 31.
The city was never going to comply with the lower discharge levels by the 2019 deadline. The city has been working on plans to upgrade the plant for years but costs have skyrocketed.
In 2016, council approved $795 million. A year ago, that price jumped to $1.4 billion and by February, the price tag had reached $1.8 billion.
Water and waste officials blamed most of the cost increase on the complexities of upgrading the plant while keeping it operational.
To deal with the escalating cost, council has broken the project into three components, including $408 million to upgrade the power supply and the plant’s headworks facilities to deal with the treatment of effluent sludge.
Construction is expected to start in 2020 and be completed in 2025.
The critical discharge aspects of the upgrades have been put off indefinitely and will only proceed if funding can be secured from the province and Ottawa. The construction of biosolid-removal facilities is projected to cost $553 million; the construction of nutrient-removal facilities, necessary to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen levels, is estimated to cost $828 million.
As an alternative, the foundation and the institute said Winnipeg should follow the example of other North American cities by adding ferric oxide to its treatment facilities, with an initial capital cost of $3 million and operating costs of $2 million annually.
"This is being implemented across the continent. It’s not rocket science. This is a simple, technical solution that will achieve the environmental outcome that we’re after," Kanu said.
Dimple Roy, the institute’s director of water management, said engineers and scientists familiar with the Winnipeg plant were consulted to develop the interim measure, which was demonstrated to reduce phosphorus concentrations by 70 per cent, to a level that would comply with its licence.
Roy said the north end plant accounts for five per cent of all phosphorus discharges.
"We’d want to talk to (Winnipeg) about what they’ve found and how we could address some of their specific concerns," Roy said. "We’re confident this solution works. It has worked in many places... We’d be happy to offer our help and find ways in which we can offer some of our expertise in addressing some of their concerns."
City hall denied a request by the Free Press for an interview with Shanks.
In an email, a civic spokesman said consultants concluded the ferric chloride solution would increase the amount of sludge generated by the plant to such a degree that the plant couldn’t operate properly.
Kanu said the engineering and scientific team behind the proposal had anticipated the additional buildup of sludge to be about 11 per cent, adding that only causes a problem because the city fails to properly carry out sludge maintenance.
"They need to undertake regular (sludge) maintenance requirements," Kanu said. "That need for regular maintenance shouldn’t preclude them meeting the legislative requirements for phosphorus reduction."
— with files from Larry Kusch
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.
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