Decafnation archive photo of the Courtenay-Comox sewage treatment plant | George Le Masurier photo
Curtis Road residents threaten legal action over sewage commission failure on odour issues
This article was updated Nov. 6 to add further information from CAO Russell Dyson about financial planning for large expenses.
The Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission has a sure-fire $8.5 million solution to the raw sewage odours that have plagued the Curtis Road neighborhood for 34 years, but it decided this week to spend another five months looking for a less expensive option.
That didn’t please the Curtis Road Residents Association who want a definitive decision from the commission by Nov. 15 to finally resolve the odour problem or they may pursue a legal recourse.
“While we appreciate that financing can take time, we have not heard, to date, any solid commitment from the commission that they intend to resolve the problem,” wrote Jenny Steel, spokesperson for the residents, in an email exchange after the meeting.
READ MORE: Previous stories on this issue
“That does not give (residents) a warm and fuzzy that you’re particularly committed to resolving the stink.”
Steel told the commission the CRRA plans “to take our campaign to the next level,” which includes lodging formal bylaw complaints and preparing for a new legal action against the Comox Valley Regional District.
Since the commission opened its sewage treatment plant in 1985 on property that borders Curtis Road, residents have suffered noxious odours that at times make their homes uninhabitable. Pleas for relief, including a previous successful lawsuit against the regional district, have made little difference, they say.
In 2018, the commission spent $2 million on a solution to “upgrade existing scrubbers and covering primary clarifiers.” But that did not solve the problem.
The commission now plans to spend $20,000 taking more odour measurements and studying what other BC governments have done to minimize the negative impacts of noxious odours on nearby homeowners.
Liquid Waste and Water Manager Kris LaRose told the commission this week that he’s “not disputing that odours from the plant are unacceptably high.”
And he believes two consultants’ reports are reliable that said covering the sewage plant’s three bioreactors would reduce odours in the Curtis Road area to a level below human detection.
But several factors prevent the commission from deciding to move ahead now.
One of those factors appears to be financial planning. CVRD’s Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson said the commission could not make a commitment to spend $8.5 million without an amendment to the regional district’s financial plan, and he said that could not be done before the CRRA’s Nov. 15 deadline.
“The alternative is for it to be considered as part of the 2020 budget which will be approved in March,” Dyson told Decafnation. “Given this level of expenditure, my advice was to follow the staff recommendation to do additional analysis and then consider (it) as part of the 2020 budget. The alternative would be to push through three readings by year’s end for a large expenditure that will have a lasting impact on the service.”
Dyson said the commission needs to find a way to improve the impacts of odour in a manner that respects the capacity of the ratepayers and the many financial challenges the service is facing, which include a new sewer conveyance system and treatment plant upgrades.
That led several commission directors to conclude that whether or not they voted to approve the $8.5 million expenditure now, it couldn’t be formally approved until spring, so that doing further studies would not delay the solution.
Jenny Steel, the spokesperson for the CRRA, said the regional district spends similar amounts with less analysis.
“To put this in perspective,” she told the commission in a prepared presentation, “you just spent $7.6 million to expand the composting facility, you approved $7.1 for the EQ Basin and (the) CVRD provided $9 million for the Cumberland Host Community Benefit.”
Cumberland’s host agreement is with the Comox-Strahcona Solid Waste service.
Steel said spending $8.5 million to finally resolve the sewage commission ongoing odour problem is a 45-year investment that will cost Courtenay and Comox taxpayers less than $5 per year.
“That’s less than two cans of Febreze,” she said.
Another factor is a disagreement over how low odour levels need to go.
Residents want odour levels reduced to one odour unit (OU) at the plant’s property line boundaries under normal operations but will accept five OU (a design limit) only when there are problems at the plant, such as a power outage or mechanical failure.
One OU is the standard used by the province of Ontario. BC has no province-wide odour standards.
The problem, according to LaRose, is that covering the three bioreactors at a cost of $8.5 million might be unnecessary. His data shows the move would reduce odour measurements down to 0.5 OU at sensitive receptors, which he called a “big step.”
“Is there something in the middle? That’s what we want to study further,” he said.
The Curtis Road residents are also disputing CVRD staff reports that claim the 2018 upgrades made a significant reduction in odour from measurements taken 2016.
A CVRD newsletter about the issue claims odour levels declined by 80 percent. But the residents say the CVRD’s own data shows the reduction was only 47 percent.
When Steel asked for the newsletter to be recalled, Dyson said the CVRD stands by the newsletter’s claims
“Interesting — CVRD senior management are content to push demonstrably erroneous and misleading information to the public,” Steel emailed back. “Absent any commitment in writing … you leave us no choice but to pursue other avenues to resolve this issue.”
Comox Commissioner Russ Arnott said he didn’t “take kindly” to be given a mid-November deadline.
“If we’re going to be ostracized in the press, let it happen,” he said. “I will vote in favor of the $8.5 million, but I won’t be scared into making a decision.”
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