Lunenburg Harbour will remain contaminated with sewage as long as there are no laws in place forcing anyone to clean up the pollution or to prevent it in the first place, says a town businessman.
Bill Flower, whose tour boat operation is based beside the town’s sewage outfall at the harbour waterfront, has spent more than a decade trying unsuccessfully to persuade all three levels of government to address the contamination. Meanwhile, testing at the harbour over the past two years has revealed extraordinarily high levels of fecal contamination, especially around the outfall where he works.
Most recent testing, conducted last month at the wharf, showed fecal contamination more than nine times higher than what’s considered safe by Health Canada for recreational use.
The Chronicle Herald has spoken to three experts in the last year who agree with Flower’s assessment that the outfall is poorly placed near the downtown core and should be moved to a location where the effluent can be properly flushed.
“Because there are no laws preventing sewage contamination at our historic harbour, a UNESCO World Heritage Site I might add, it’s become essentially a cesspool,” said Flower. “Not one of our elected politicians will tell residents that that’s the real reason we’re dealing with a very serious public health matter today.”
Jurisdiction of the harbour ultimately falls under the federal government. But it currently has no laws in place that prevent fecal contamination in Lunenburg Harbour or any body of water under federal jurisdiction.
The town’s treatment plant is required to be in compliance with federal wastewater systems effluent regulations. But fecal matter is not among the four contaminants listed in the regulations, which include carbonaceous biochemical oxygen-demanding matter, suspended solids, total residual chlorine and un-ionized ammonia.
The town is required to test the plant’s effluent and the harbour regularly for those substances to ensure compliance and test results must be submitted to Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Still, the provincial government can introduce laws that set limits on fecal concentrations in the harbour. But the Department of Environment hasn’t addressed the pollution, arguing that the harbour falls under federal jurisdiction.
Brian Hebert, a Halifax lawyer with expertise in environmental law, says a regulatory gap exists and both the federal and provincial governments have a responsibility to address the ongoing pollution.
“There is a gap,” said Hebert. “Efforts should be made to determine the source of the contaminants in Lunenburg Harbour and correct the situation.”
Provincial and federal legislation pertaining to municipal sewage treatment plants prohibit water pollution, but since fecal matter is not expressly listed as a contaminant or a harmful substance, the onus is on the public to prove that it is.
“There are likely legal remedies that could be brought to bear — a public nuisance suit,” said Hebert, “perhaps even a private nuisance suit by an adjacent landowner. The province is currently looking at a new coastal protection act. Perhaps this is something that will be addressed in the proposed legislation.”
There are no current plans to address fecal contamination in Lunenburg Harbour, or any other federal harbour, in the proposed act, said Bruce Nunn, Department of Environment spokesman.
The town’s sewage treatment plant is currently in compliance with provincial regulations, said Nunn. Under provincial rules, the plant’s effluent is required to maintain safe levels of coliform, an indicator of fecal contamination, and be tested for the bacteria regularly. Neither the town nor the department would provide the plant’s latest coliform test results. Once the effluent enters the harbour there is no compliance measure in place to address potential fecal contamination in the water.
Mayor Rachel Bailey said she was unaware of the regulatory shortcoming. Attempting to explain the lack of oversight, she said the fecal contamination in the harbour “is just organic matter.”
“But we know it’s a problem,” said Bailey. “We never suggested it wasn’t. We’re doing more testing because we thought there might be more information to gain.”
For the second straight summer, the town is testing the harbour for fecal contamination. Like last year, most of the tests conducted so far have been done at three locations — Inshore Fishermen’s Wharf, Zwicker Wharf and the newly constructed Broad Street Boat Launch — and have shown water contamination high enough to make activities such as swimming, sailing and fishing unsafe.
Zwicker Wharf and Broad Street Boat Launch areas were tested three times for enterococci, a reliable indication of fecal contamination, and only once did measurements meet Health Canada standards.
Health Canada states that levels of enterococci must be at or below 175 colonies per 100 millilitres of water to be safe for secondary contact, including sailing and fishing. The concentration falls to 70 colonies per 100 mL for swimming.
The Inshore Fishermen’s Wharf was tested only once, producing 1,600 colonies per 100 mL, more than nine times higher than the standard for safe secondary contact.
Bailey said the site of the outfall was not originally in the proposal submitted to Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation — the Lunenburg environmental organization the town hired to conduct the summer and fall testing. She said council made a decision to include the location late last month.
Six test results gathered near Inshore Fisherman’s Wharf last year ranged from 132 to 3,873 colonies of enterococci per 100 mL.
Last year, the Herald spoke to Anthony Tong, an Acadia University waste water treatment expert, and Cape Breton University marine ecologist Bruce Hatcher, and both agreed the waterfront outfall is at the root of the ongoing contamination problem at the harbour and ought to be moved to a location away from the downtown core where the effluent can be properly flushed.
Hatcher went so far as to say the state of the harbour had reached “Third World-like conditions.” Brooke Nodding, executive director of Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation, also agrees the waste pipe is poorly placed and should be moved.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is calling on both the federal and provincial governments to take the lead in addressing the ongoing contamination.
“It’s very frustrating for everybody in Lunenburg but it requires action at the provincial and federal levels to set standards and to be prepared to investigate and find the sources of the contamination and require proper sewage treatment,” said May.
“The evidence suggests the contamination is flowing from the outfall so they know where it’s coming from. They should be adding additional treatment before that outfall or they should shift the outfall to a place that has more vigorous tidal action.”
Bailey isn’t prepared to say whether the outfall should be moved. In 2014 the town paid for a study conducted by ABL Environmental Consultants, which provided a blueprint and costs associated with extending the outfall further into the channel. The project was added to the town’s 10-year capital plan and had been slated to be completed in the 2021-22 fiscal year.
In addition to the current harbour testing, the town has also hired CBCL Ltd. consulting engineers to determine the causes of the contamination and possible solutions.
Bernadette Jordan, MP for South Shore-St. Margarets, couldn’t say whether Environment and Climate Change Canada would be willing to investigate the contaminated harbour, nor would she speculate on what’s causing the contamination.
Jordan did say that if it was determined that the outfall needed to be moved, money would be available for funding in the federal infrastructure program.
Despite the years of frustration, Flower remains hopeful that someone will step up to address what he calls an intolerable public health matter.
“I think it’s 2018 and I don’t know how the general public will allow it to go any further,” said Flower. “It’s a dangerous heath issue and I’ve lost all faith in the government bodies because they have done nothing.”