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Winnipeg warns of delays, environmental risks if province pushes North End sewage plant upgrades

Winnipeg warns of delays, environmental risks if province pushes North End sewage plant upgrades
Global News' Erik Pindera reports on a growing rift between the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba over upgrades to the city's North End sewage plant.

Mayor Brian Bowman says pushing forward phosphorus reduction solutions at Winnipeg’s North End sewage treatment plant at the province’s behest could have disastrous environmental effects on the province’s waterways and create further project delays.

Manitoba’s Conservation and Climate Ministry denied the city’s request for a two-year extension to bring the plant into compliance with environmental regulations Thursday, instead forcing Winnipeg into an advisory group to develop an interim phosphorus reduction plan by the end of January, with implementation mandated for Feb. 1.

The licensing requirements would have made the city reduce phosphorus emissions at the North End plant to one mg/litre from the current 3.54 mg/litre average by Dec. 31. The province now says the city will be out of compliance by New Year’s Day.

Winnipeg’s North End sewage treatment plant is the single largest source of phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg, according to the Lake Winnipeg Foundation. That phosphorus causes algae blooms.

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READ MORE: Lake Winnipeg algae blooms could be tackled with change at city sewage plant, say experts

However, Bowman stressed any phosphorus reduction plan needs to be first studied to determine whether it’s safe.

“Without proper testing, without knowing from a science perspective and an engineering perspective… there are significant risks to the integrity of that plant, but also the integrity and quality of the water in our rivers and lakes,” Bowman said.

“A catastrophic failure means months of raw sewage flowing into the rivers and we know that that’s a risk that’s been identified by a third-party engineer.”

Mayor Brian Bowman speaks to media Thursday, March 7, 2019.
Mayor Brian Bowman speaks to media Thursday, March 7, 2019. File/Global News

“The province will be working with the city to ensure that any proposed alterations to the wastewater processes will result in improved wastewater effluent quality and that operations at the plant remain stable,” a Conservation and Climate Ministry spokesman said in an email. “There is no intent to put anything at risk but rather find a solution for the future and bring additional expertise to the table.”

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The city will participate in the province’s advisory groups, Bowman said, and it wants to accelerate phosphorus reduction, but worries it could delay the progress the city has already made.

“We will not be supportive of any processes that will delay our progress in protecting the rivers and lakes,” Bowman said.

The city has moved ahead on the first of three upgrade phases —  $408 million in power supply and headworks facilities upgrades — but it hasn’t approved biosolid and nutrient removal projects.

READ MORE: Victoria Beach residents, vacationers asked to reduce water consumption over algae in Lake Winnipeg

Those two projects will cost $1.38 billion combined and the city says it can’t proceed without federal and provincial dollars.

The province has yet to approve Winnipeg’s $267 million funding request and Ottawa has yet to approve a $306 million funding request from the city.

“That could have been announced yesterday and it was not,” Bowman said of the provincial funds.

“If we had that funding certainty we could provide a construction timeline and construction certainty, which we know that they’ve requested and we understand was one of the primary reasons for (licence compliance extension) denial.”

If the city is forced to take on those projects without federal and provincial support, Bowman warned of major impacts on the pockets of taxpayers.

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“The implications on (city) water rates would be significant, I can’t underscore that enough,” the mayor said.

The province says it’s irresponsible to commit funding at this stage, while not knowing the project’s full scope.

“Cost estimates continue to escalate and have more than doubled,” the ministry spokesperson said in the email. “Once the actual project scope is known, federal funding levels will have to be fully explored as well.”

$1.3 million water treatment upgrade included in Winnipeg budget
$1.3 million water treatment upgrade included in Winnipeg budget