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Green IT

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Gatineau Septic Plant Cancelled


The Gatineau River will stay as clean, healthy and leisure-friendly as ever, thanks to the work of some determined locals. These organized citizens exposed and protested problems with a septic treatment plant that local municipalities planned to build near the Gatineau River.

Until recently, the regional municipality that covers the area just north of the City of Gatineau had a private consultant busy planning the plant. The new plant would have spit its treated septage--the septic-tank equivalent of sewage--into the river not far upstream of Ottawa and Gatineau, and just a short jaunt upstream from Wakefield.

However, at a regular meeting of the MRC des Collines-de-l'Outaouais earlier this fall, the region's municipal leaders announced a change. They had called off the next proposed contract for plant-related work, and along with it, the entire project.

    River in winter.   Photo: Richard F. Charles

(The acronym "MRC" stands for a coalition of regional municipalities, or a county government, in French. Its leaders include multiple mayors, who lead the various municipalities that make up the MRC.)

The mayors said they had cancelled the septage plant project mainly because it was no longer urgent. Other septage-treatment options had opened up. 

Much of the region's septage will now go to an existing private treatment plant near Portage-du-Fort, Quebec. The Ottawa River is downstream, but the Gatineau River is no longer part of the story.

Yet, all that is only one chapter of this story. If local residents had not voiced their views both strongly and consistently, the problematic plant could very well have gone ahead.

As Ottawa activist Koozma Tarasoff, who maintains the Spirit-Wrestlers blog, explained, several organized groups came together over the last few years to point out flaws in the MRC's septage plan. These groups included the Ottawa Riverkeeper and the Friends of the Gatineau River.

By maintaining an energetic, up-to-date online presence, these groups helped drive debate. Koozma's daughter, Tamara Tarasoff, lives near the proposed plant site. She created a website to clarify the complex, detailed municipal processes and announcements around the plant project.

Effective in-person protests and events helped sway opinion. These built up public attention. Organizers showed how the plant could hurt recreational activities (such as canoeing and swimming) that many Gatineau River lovers enjoy each summer.

Some local towns and private homes also draw drinking water not far from the proposed plant. These health concerns also sparked protest.

Technical concerns with the proposed plant's particulars were legion. One plan to drain the "treated" septage liquid (effluent) into the Gatineau River referred to yearly average Gatineau River flow, Tamara wrote on her website. In the summer months, when the River reaches very low levels, the actual flow would not reach these yearly averages. 

That meant the effluent, flowing out of the plant at its regular rate, could have been extra-concentrated in the smaller amount of river water. This could have been a stinky and perhaps dangerous summer situation for people downstream.

Further, the proposed lagoon-style treatment plant would have used already-outdated technology, according to the Ottawa Riverkeeper.

Debate about building an up-to-date treatment facility and the lack of existing Gatineau-area septic treatment plants has been going on for years. Septic waste trucking companies decide where to dump the septage, Tamara points out. The farther the trucks must go and the more limited their options, the higher the pick-up price they will charge. Municipalities, meanwhile, set the maximum interval between pump-outs (e.g., each septic system must be cleaned at least once every x number of years), which affects the demand for limited treatment plant capacity. 

What the MRC des Collines- de-l'Outaouais leaders viewed as the urgent problem started in December 2010. That is when the City of Gatineau's treatment plant stopped taking septage from the MRC. The City stated it needed to dedicate limited plant capacity to treat Gatineau residents' sewage and septage.

The MRC had been working on possible plant plans for some time, even before Gatineau stopped offering its treatment services. Yet the plans presented publicly lacked important details in addition to the problems mentioned above, according to Tamara and to documents posted by the Ottawa Riverkeeper and other organizations involved. 

Many key concerns lacked detail. These included just how much septage would go to the plant. Which towns would be able to use the new plant? What routes would septic trucks follow to reach it? How would it get rid of the solid "sludge" left over after treatment?

In many of her website posts, Tamara emphasizes that an upgraded treatment plant at the City of Gatineau would be a better long-term solution. A meeting of experts, convened by the MRC last April, confirmed this view, she notes. Engineers, scientists and professors came together to explain why a professionally managed, upgraded City of Gatineau plant would be best.

The better-funded City could unite with local rural municipalities, including the MRC, to offer a quality, well-maintained, high-tech septic plant. Such quality technology would be hard to afford any other way.

Any such upgrade is a ways off yet. For now, the Gatineau River will keep on flowing as it has, free of any new treatment plant.


Adrian Larose writes on social and environmental issues.



In this issue..

Energy East -- A Present Danger
A project to pipe massive amounts of bitumen-based oil from Alberta to Canada's east coast is drawing opposition from communities along its proposed route.
TransCanada Pipeline's Energy East project is being promoted as a means of moving oil from Alberta's tar sands to ports in Quebec and New Brunswick, primarily for export overseas. TransCanada claims this project will expand oil refineries and related industry and create jobs. Energy East would be larger than either the Trans-Mountain, Northern Gateway or the controversial Keystone XL projects.
The issue motivated a discussion, "Energy East: Our Risk - Their Reward," hosted recently in Ottawa by the Council of Canadians and Ecology Ottawa. The meeting was one of a series of forums organized by the Council with local concerned groups in towns along the possible pipeline.
The evening featured a panel composed of Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, and Graham Saul of Ecology Ottawa.
Eriel Deranger stated that Treaty number 8, an agreement signed by (among other First Nations) the Chipewyan people and the Crown in 1899, guarantees its First Nations signatories hunting, fishing, trapping, and cultural preservation rights. These rights, which were later reinforced by the Canadian Constitution and Bill of Rights, are now threatened by the oil sands development in the Athabasca region.
Tar sands, she said, are destroying local ecology and poisoning First Nations peoples. Many Chipewyan have no running water or are subject to years-long boiling water advisories. They suffer increased cancer rates.
Water pollution 
The Tar sands reportedly use four barrels of water for every barrel of oil. Tailings ponds are suspected of leaking millions of litres of toxins into the McKenzie and Athabasca Rivers daily. The mining has caused acres of forest to be cleared, disrupting animal habitats and migratory patterns. Tests on local wildlife indicate probable contamination and a risk to the First Nations practice of sustainable hunting.
Deranger stated that the Harper government threatens democracy and environmental protection. She cites Bill C-45 (2012), which deregulates the management--and protection--of lakes and waterways, as an example. Critical habitats are now vulnerable.
The ACFN, she said is suing Shell Oil Canada for failure to honour agreements with the Chipewyan First Nation regarding resource exploitation on their land. Furthermore, the ACFN is legally protesting the Federal government's approval (with stipulations) of Shell's proposed Jackpine mine project to expand tar sands production.
"Canada has become the playground for oil companies. " Deranger commented. "Aboriginals' traditional territory is being sold."
Maude Barlow explained that TransCanada's use of Benzene (an organic chemical compound) to facilitate the flow of piped bitumen makes spillage extremely toxic. In such an event, the oil would sink into--not float on--water and make the clean-up "a nightmare." Some of the pipes TransCanada uses are old and ill-equipped to handle pressure.
Energy East, she said, will cross 90 waterways systems and provide "a new threat to the Great Lakes, which are already in danger." Barlow explained that U.S. authorities allow fracking wastewater to cross the Great Lakes, with spillage a constant possibility.
The global water supply, Barlow said, is itself threatened.
"The planet," she said, "is running out of water. "
Water is being pumped out faster than it can be (naturally) replaced. The Great Lakes are being drained of so much water that they might be depleted in 80 years. Half of China's rivers have disappeared since 1990. The dumping of waste water into oceans adds further damage.
"We have a responsibility not to destroy this water," she stated. "This is part of a larger struggle."
Local impacts
Part of the Energy East pipeline will cross the Rideau River just south of Ottawa, along with the Oxford aquifer, and a groundwater recharge area [a pumping station is planned in Stittsville]. A spill could thus close down Ottawa's water supply.
Barlow advocated building a strong movement against Energy East. She recommended that citizens tweet and otherwise contact representatives such as Jim Watson to have a risk assessment done regarding an oil pipeline in the Ottawa area.
Graham Saul stated that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently found that, while global warming will increase by 3 ¼ to 4 ¼ if coal and gas are continually burnt for energy, mitigating this is still possible. The IPCC says that alternative energies do not, despite what their critics say, really damage economies.
Saul explained that while Norway and Germany are increasingly using energies such as solar power, Canada does the opposite. The Harper government has reduced federal energy programs while promoting "radical, reckless, ultimately unethical projects such as the tar sands."
Saul said that Kitimat, BC recently held a non-binding plebiscite on the construction of a pipeline and an oil tanker terminal for Enbridge's Northern Gateway project. Enbridge claimed that Northern Gateway would create 180 jobs locally. Nonetheless, 60 per cent of citizens rejected the project. This, Saul said, proves the power of grassroots opposition. (The plebiscite motivated a BC environmental group, Dogwood Initiative, to campaign to have Northern Gateway subject to a popular provincial referendum). He said that communities in New Brunswick and Quebec affected by Energy East are mobilizing against it.
Saul advised that citizens in the National Capital Region lobby the Ontario Energy Board and the federal government regarding the risks associated with Energy East. People should express their concerns to candidates in the upcoming Ontario provincial election.
"We have to stand up and say we do not want this pipeline," he stated. "The time to organize is now."
David Mills writes on environmental and social justice issues.

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