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.