Plagued by the odours of sewage from Courtenay and Comox residents for 34 years, the residents of Curtis Road returned to the regional sewage commission this week hoping for resolutions to their concerns, which they say now includes a threat to their drinking water wells and a visual blight on their neighborhood
Area B Director Arzeena Hamir at a tour of the treatment plant last fall / George Le Masurier photos
This article has been updated
Plagued by the odours of sewage from Courtenay and Comox for 34 years, the residents of Curtis Road returned to the regional sewage commission this week hoping for resolutions to their concerns, which they say now include a threat to their drinking water wells and a visual blight on their neighborhood.
But the residents walked out en masse before the meeting concluded in “total and complete frustration.”
“I felt we needed to walk out when the commission members accepted CVRD staff recommendations despite knowing that many of our issues had not been addressed and without any really substantive discussion at all,” Curtis Road Residents Association spokesperson Jenny Steel told Decafnation.
“It’s agony to sit at a meeting when a commission member asks what will make Curtis Road happy, and not be allowed to answer,” she said. “We question how democracy is being served by the severe limits placed on communication at these meetings.”
The meeting highlighted a long history of conflict between Curtis Road residents and the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission, and the mistrust that still exists between them.
In its presentation this week, the residents made three requests to the commission: one, to adopt a measurable odour standard; two, to allow Area B representation on the sewage commission; and, three, to overhaul the commission’s 2014 odour complaint tracking system.
The commission made no decision on adopting an odour standard or allowing Area B representation. It did agree, though not through a formal vote, to update the commission’s website to accurately report the number of complaints it has received.
Liquid Waste and Water Manager Kris LaRose acknowledged that the commission’s website had “underplayed” the level of complaints about odour from sewage treatment plant. He promised to review all language on the site and update it.
What the commission did do
The commission did pass three staff recommendations in response to Curtis Road residents’ presentation at last month’s commission meeting.
— It will develop a landscape plan, in consultation with residents, to revegetate berms to be constructed around the new equalization basin. The commission expects them to solve the visual blight concerns and to help reduce odours.
But the commission took no action to address residents’ fear that the location of the EQ basin could affect their supply of drinking water from nearby shallow wells.
— It directed staff to work with residents to create a communications system to keep residents informed of operations at the sewage treatment plant that could impact odour levels.
— It will expedite an odour measurement survey previously scheduled for August to analyze whether previous odour controls measures had, in fact, achieved an 80 percent reduction in odours, and to update cost estimates for eliminating the remaining percentage, whether it is more or less than 20 percent.
In its 2016 plan to reduce odours, the commission stopped short of spending $3 million to cover the bioreactors, a process where bacteria work on sewage sludge before being cleansed through low-pressure micro-filtration membranes. The cost to do it now is estimated at up to $5 million.
Commission members discussed covering the bioreactors and there appeared to be majority support for doing it now if that would remove the last 20 percent of noxious odours.
But several directors wondered if previous attempts to reduce odours had actually achieved the predicted 80 percent reduction, or had fallen short, and whether covering the bioreactors would then achieve the desired 99.9% odour reduction.
In the end, commissioners voted to expedite the new odour study (although it will take six weeks to get it started) and to update the cost estimate of covering the bioreactors at the same time, which will speed up decision-making when the odour study results are known.
LaRose said if the commission decided this summer to move ahead on covering the bioreactors, the work could be completed by the end of 2020.
— It referred the issues of Area B representation on the commission to staff to prepare a report for the June meeting that would outline governance options.
EQ basin concerns
Curtis Road Residents Association spokesperson Jenny Steel said the group’s most urgent concern is that commissioners gave the EQ Basin project a green light.
“We are all extremely worried that any breach of the basin liner will result in pollution of our well water,” she said. Those who live on the peninsular know how brutal the winds are down here during those big storms, and trees fall frequently. We think it will be a disaster waiting to happen.”
Liquid Waste and Water Manager Kris LaRose said the EQ basis was first conceived in 2017 and is now urgently needed to mitigate the risk of sewage overflow next fall and winter.
When heavy rains begin in November, the volume of wastewater increases three-fold due to rainwater entering the system. And with increasing frequency and intensity of winter storms due to climate change, the problem is expected to worsen.
LaRose said the original site for the EQ basin, which Curtis Road residents prefer, was further away from Curtis Road, but that it would limit future plant expansion. Courtenay and Comox populations are growing, he said, and the plant will need to accommodate that growth.
But perhaps the overriding motivation for moving the EQ location was cost. Locating it at the northwest corner of the plant’s property, away from Curtis Road, would have cost $7.2 million. The new site, closer to Curtis Road, will be less expensive.
LaRose is currently leading the development of a master liquid waste management plan that includes a 50-year plan for plant expansion and upgrades in treatment levels. The plan will also realign sewage conveyance to the plant and envision resource recovery, such as reusing cleaned water for agricultural and other purposes.
Moving the EQ location would also be expensive.
LaRose reiterated that the EQ basin would only be used during a handful of extreme weather events during the winter, and would be cleaned after each use. He predicted the basin would not affect Curtis Road residents.
Curtis Road residents want the commission to move the basin and retire the tall emission stack to soften the visual stigma.
Sewage Commission Chair David Frisch will accompany staff members to an informal meeting with Curtis Road residents. Area B Director Arzeena Hamir will be invited to attend.
An odour measurement study will begin as soon as possible and be completed by August. Staff will update the cost estimate for covering the bioreactors.
Staff will also prepare options for including Area B representation on the Sewage Commission for its June meeting.
But Jenny Steel hopes the commission will respond sooner.
“We had asked the commission to respond to us by May 16th – we will wait to see if and how they respond,” she said.
WHAT ARE OUs?
The units for odour measurement using dynamic olfactometry are “odour units” (OU) which are dimensionless and are effectively “dilutions to
threshold.” — Western Australia Department of Environmental Protection
WHO USES OUs?
Several jurisdictions use a standard of 1 OU for odour emissions for sewage treatment plants, including the Province of Ontario and the City of Vancouver.
The new Capital Regional District has set 2 OUs as the standard for its new sewage treatment plant at the property line, which is about 300 meters from the nearest residences. But, the Curtis Road residents point out that all tanks at this plant will be covered from the start and that no residences exist between the plant and the ocean, which eliminate offshore breezes carrying odours through a neighborhood.
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