Council Talks Wastewater, Green-lights $58M Project

Writing about wastewater earlier this year, I raised the possibility that CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke might not be worried about meeting a December 2020 deadline associated with new federal wastewater regulations because he’s already announced he won’t be seeking a third term — which means he will bid us farewell in October 2020.

As it turns out, Clarke has been working on the wastewater issue, but because he’s been working the way he seems to prefer to work — by himself — I had no idea what he was up to and neither, it seems, did the CBRM Council.

Last night, though, at the regular monthly council meeting, Clarke decided to bring us all up to date on the wastewater issue — huzzah!

 

High Risk

I have written at length about the CBRM’s wastewater woes here and here and here, but the Coles Notes version is that the federal government introduced new wastewater regulations — the Wastewater System Effluent Regulations (WSER) — in 2012 and meeting them is going to cost the CBRM an estimated $425 million which is, I think we can all agree, insane.

And those are just the capital costs — Wayne MacDonald, head of Public Works for the municipality, says the operating costs will be around $10 million.

Under the regulations (which fall under the Fisheries Act), the CBRM has to provide secondary treatment of all wastewater and to upgrade its “high risk” systems by December 2020 (the remaining systems to be upgraded by 2030, and 2040, depending on their risk levels).

Back in June 2015, then-federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay announced $19 million in federal funding for the Sydney West Harbour Wastewater project, which is to deal with wastewater from Westmount, Coxheath and Sydport (none of which, for the record, is a “high risk” system). The full cost of that project, $58 million, is to be shared equally by the three levels of government.

In March 2016, Mayor Clarke advised (and Council agreed) that the wastewater project as well as a second, $1.4 million project the CBRM was seeking funding for — a feasibility study to conduct Environmental Risk Assessments (ERAs) at the remaining wastewater systems — be postponed “until we have certainty from the Province that we can afford the operations costs and repay the capital borrowing on an ongoing basis.” (That is a direct quote from his memorandum to Council at the time.)

Almost a full year later, during Council budget meetings in February 2017, both wastewater projects were approved “pending written confirmation from the Province that our unique and significant need for waste water [sic] infrastructure will  not impact our ability to obtain other infrastructure projects from the federal and provincial governments.” (That this was a completely different reason for postponing the project than the one Clarke had given a year earlier doesn’t seem to have raised eyebrows.)

And that was the last I can recall hearing about the project — until now, that is.

 

Churchill (Not that Churchill)

In a memorandum from the Mayor’s Office presented to Council Tuesday night, Clarke announced the municipality had been successful in:

…securing the necessary commitment by the Province of Nova Scotia to enable the $58 million Sydney Harbour West Collector/Treatment project and the $1.4 million CCME Wastewater Feasibility/Risk Assessments to proceed.

Apparently, according to a handful of documents appended to this week’s Council agenda (they start on Page 90), Clarke heard what he wanted to hear from then-Municipal Affairs Minister Zach Churchill on 22 March 2017, although he carefully avoids any mention of Churchill in his memorandum, focusing instead on his meetings with Sydney-Victoria MLA (and current Municipal Affairs Minister) Derek Mombourquette, Glace Bay MLA Geoff MacLellan, the Premier and Sydney-Victoria MP Mark Eyking.

Clarke offers no explanation as to why it took a full year to get an agreement with the province (he first met with Churchill to discuss the matter on 16 March 2016) nor does he explain his decision to keep this good news to himself for seven months.

Strangest of all, Clarke doesn’t actually present any direct letter or email from Churchill confirming what he claims Churchill said. Instead, he provides a 21 July 2017 letter from the current Minister of Municipal Affairs, Mombourquette confirming what he understands Churchill to have said:

 

Say what?

First of all, what happened to ensuring “we can afford the operations costs and repay the capital borrowing on an ongoing basis?” Wasn’t that why these projects were originally postponed? Rather than providing an answer to that question, Clarke actually offered to go back to the province for further “clarity” on the matter, if that’s what Council wanted. “I’ll carry the mail,” he told them (more than once, actually), making it sound as though he was simply doing Council’s bidding on the wastewater issue when in fact, he’s been running the show by himself all along. (And it’s been mostly his show, although the original letter from Environment Canada, which is in charge of enforcing the WSER regulations, arrived in 2011 under then-Mayor John Morgan.)

And second, why is a July letter addressed to “Mayor and Council” only being shared with “Council” three months later? I asked the Mayor’s spokesperson, Christina Lamey, if this was the first Council was seeing of Mombourquette’s missive and she told me in an email:

The correspondence related to the file is included in the agenda package provided to council prior to their meeting.

So, “Yes.”

Thirdly, if what Clarke was after was assurances that investing in wastewater infrastructure would not preclude the CBRM’s receiving funding for other eligible infrastructure and if then-Minister Churchill gave him those assurances on 22 March 2017 (well before the May 2017 provincial elections) why didn’t Clarke come back to the CBRM in triumph and given orders to get those wastewater projects underway?

Why would he wait four months to get something weird in writing from the new Minister of Municipal Affairs and then wait another three months before telling Council about it?

It’s all so squirrelly it detracts from what is basically a good news story — we can invest in wastewater infrastructure and still apply for provincial funding for other infrastructure projects (although our applications can still be turned down, so the proof of this pudding will be in the funding).

But it still leaves many questions to be answered about wastewater and last night, Council weighed in on most of them and it was a very good discussion, albeit a discussion that probably should have happened one or two or five or six years ago.

 

Defying the law

Debate focused on a letter Clarke proposed to send to Mombourquette announcing the CBRM would go ahead with its two approved wastewater projects (Sydney Harbour West and the environmental risk assessments for the remaining seven wastewater systems):

 

(SPOILER ALERT: Council eventually voted to send the letter and start work on the projects.)

District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger suggested Council hold off on green-lighting the projects until they’d had a chance to inform the public of the costs — operating costs for the Sydney Harbour West treatment plant alone will be some $800,000 — something he felt could be done during the upcoming budget sessions.

District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin and District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes both endorsed the idea of using the budget sessions to educate the public on the wastewater issue, and CAO Marie Walsh suggested the public could be told about the various ways in which the projects might be funded, including the possibility (currently under consideration) of switching to a usage-based, “water in/sewer out” payment system, such as is used in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

But MacMullin especially was clear that she didn’t want to frame the discussions in such a way that citizens would think the CBRM had the option of saying, “No” when it is legally required to meet the wastewater regulations.

Bruckschwaiger, however, argued that there is simply no way the CBRM can come up with $400 million for wastewater treatment plants under current funding formulas, even if the WSER regulations are law and the penalties for failing to meet them could theoretically include jail. CAO Walsh backed him on that and Public Works chief Wayne MacDonald admitted there was no way the CBRM would meet the 2020 deadline for upgrading its high risk systems. As Bruckschwaiger asked his fellow councilors:

Four hundred million? Do you think we’re not going to be defying the law?

Wayne MacDonald, however, told Council it was his recommendation that the work begin as the CBRM has been given “a mandate by the federal government” to meet the regulations. Moreover, he explained that part of the $1.4 million funding for the ERAs had been secured in 2014 under an old federal funding formula and would eventually expire.

This seemed to resonate with District 1 Councilor Clarence Prince who told Council he recalled a decision “a few years ago” to forgo 1/3 funding on roads that resulted in the CBRM paying 100% of the costs. District 12 Councilor Jim MacLeod warned that, “Deferring could cost you a lot more in the long run,” while District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall said, “When the government comes knocking with dollars you don’t sit on them, you move,” and District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie suggested the costs of letting funding expire and paying fines for missing deadlines should also be weighed.

The Public Works chief also explained that the Sydney Harbour West project is not just a wastewater treatment plant, but will be the model for all subsequent plants: the project, he told Council, will include research into smart technologies, automation, plant construction and the latest techniques in the treatment of bio-solids.

For the record, Wayne MacDonald made quite a comprehensive presentation on wastewater to Council on 15 March 2016:

edited_Council_Agenda_-_March_15_2016

 

Equalization

Asked directly by District 9 Councilor George MacDonald if she supported the Sydney Harbor West project, CAO Marie Walsh said unequivocally, “Yes, I do.”

But she also said that the wastewater issue provided a “forum to go to the federal and provincial governments” and demand “better funding.”

“Why should we expect any less for our waters and our harbors?” asked Walsh.

At various points during the discussion, Councilor Bruckschwaiger, District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch and Deputy Mayor Eldon MacDonald all uttered the fateful words “equalization,” with the Deputy Mayor suggesting that if the federal government wants the CBRM to spend millions to meet federal wastewater regulations it should “put some conditions” on the equalization money it sends to Nova Scotia.

(A side note: this will be music to the ears of the Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness, a group of citizens who meet on the first Friday of every month in the community room at the Sobeys on Prince Street. I attended their October meeting and was interested to note that the Deputy Mayor was once a group member, as was Municipal Affairs Minister Mombourquette.)

District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie asked when was the last time Council had traveled to Halifax or Ottawa to make the case for improved funding?

Every single councilor, it must be noted, spoke in favor of wastewater treatment. “Dominion beach opened” because of a wastewater treatment plant, said Councilor Bruckschwaiger, even as he expressed concern about the costs of future plants. Councilor MacMullin said the issue is very important to her constituents, something that “came up on the doorstep” when she was campaigning.

Watching them grapple with the issue made me wonder (again) about the wisdom of having the Mayor do all the negotiating himself. As I write this, I am listening to Clarke on the radio telling the CBC that Council wants him to seek “clarity” on the question of capital and operating costs for wastewater treatment — but that’s what he said he was going to seek in March 2016, a full 19 months ago.

Given that he hasn’t found it yet, mightn’t it be a good idea to let Council help him search?

 

 

 

 

 

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