La démistification du nettoyage du port de Saint John

Saint John peut se vanter de la distinction notoire d’être la seule municipalité au Canada qui décharge ses eaux usées brutes dans les cours d’eau qui passent au coeur de la ville, en créant des conditions du tiers monde dans une ville qui est sensée être parmi les villes les plus progressives de la terre dans le domaine environnemental. 

Et pourquoi permet-on à une telle situation de perdurer?  Une des raisons serait le coût de 88 millions de dollars durant les 10 prochaines années.

The World's Greatest Toilet

Demystifying The Saint John Harbour Cleanup

Tim Vickers
June 2006 

l.gif (280 bytes)aint John's 'Harbour Cleanup' may well be the single greatest environmental issue in New Brunswick, and the least understood. The title invokes visions of machines dredging polluted sediments from the ocean bottom, while others comb the shoreline for litter and debris. In fact, it is neither. Harbour Cleanup simply refers to the infrastructure initiative that will bring an end to the practice of discharging 6 million litres of raw sewage into our watercourses each day.

(photo: Gordon Dalzell)

Some would argue that dumping raw sewage into the harbour is not unique to Saint John, and they would be partially correct, given that Halifax, St. John's and Victoria all discharge untreated wastewater into their marine environments. However, Saint John has the notorious distinction of being the only municipality in Canada that discharges raw sewage into streams that run through the heart of its city, creating third-world conditions in what is supposed to be one of the most environmentally progressive countries on earth. 

The implications of this practice are enormous. Health risks associated with waters receiving raw sewage include amoebic dysentery, cholera, typhoid, Hepatitis A, and a broad range of other gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin disorders. Canadian (federal) guidelines suggest that waters that contain more than 200 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml are unsafe for uses such as swimming, wading or fishing. Marsh Creek, located in the center of Saint John, has levels that annually exceed seven million coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water, while Dutchman's Creek, located near an elementary school in Saint John, has levels so high they almost make Marsh Creek look like drinking water.

Adding insult to injury are the massive volumes of solid materials such as faeces, toilet paper, condoms and tampons that cling to the aquatic vegetation and wash up on our beaches. The organic wastes build up in the lower portions of Marsh and Dutchman's Creeks and rot in the heat, creating odours that become unbearable during the warmer summer months. This environmental degradation creates a terrible social stigma for the city, and degrades civic pride.

(photo: Gordon Dalzell)

So why has this been allowed to continue? The answer partly includes such antiquated notions as 'dilution is the solution to pollution', whereby the harbour was viewed as the world's greatest toilet that flushed 'away' sewage twice per day. Of course, today we're knowledgeable enough to recognize that 'away' simply refers to someone else's beach.

The other key part of the story involves the price tag associated with this infrastructure initiative; that being $88 million over ten years. Approximately half of the money will be used to construct a modern wastewater treatment facility, with the remainder being used to construct lift stations, forced mains, and the other infrastructure needed to divert the sixty-plus sewage outfalls from central and east Saint John to the treatment plant. The large price tag and lack of glamorous ribbon-cutting opportunities has proved a deterrent to establishing a trilateral agreement amongst the municipal, provincial and federal governments. Add to this the inevitable conflicts that arise when political representatives for the region belong to the opposition party, and you have a situation that has historically received little more than political lip service.

However, the past two years have seen a notable change in political involvement associated with the Harbour Cleanup portfolio. This change began to take shape following the Public Forum hosted by ACAP Saint John in October 2004. The Forum saw over 200 concerned citizens, business owners and politicians (including Saint John Mayor Norm McFarlane) participate in an information session that removed many of the misconceptions about Harbour Cleanup. Around this time, the Saint John City Council endorsed Harbour Cleanup as their top priority, and federal MP Paul Zed emerged as a leader in championing the cause. Unfortunately, a funding agreement could not be formalized between the three levels of government before a federal election was called.

Fast-forward to March 24, 2006 and the arrival in Saint John of newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper. By all accounts, Mr. Harper had arrived to make the big funding announcement we had all been waiting for, a trilateral agreement for $88 million. Imagine the disappointment when the announcement only called for a three way split of $8.5 million, with a pledge to continue negotiations over the next ten years. The public outcry was substantial.

The problem with the $8.5 million announcement was that it did nothing to advance the ten-year timeline needed to complete Harbour Cleanup, which is contingent upon the construction of the $50 million treatment plant. Without the plant, the lift stations and sewer outfalls have nowhere to be diverted. The timeline begins with the beginning of construction of the plant. The citizens had a right to be disappointed given the amount of hype generated prior to the announcement.

Having said that, I believe it is important to acknowledge what the announcement means to the initiative as a whole. Specifically, it was the third time in four months that the leader of a national political party was in Saint John committing (albeit verbally) to seeing the ten-year project through to completion. Add to this the visit by federal Environment Minister (Rona Ambrose) on March 15, 2006 and you have the highest level of political acknowledgement of the problem that we have seen to date. This in itself is a huge step forward.

It is important that the value the community places on this project not be underestimated. People have reached the point where they realize that if Saint John is to truly move forward as a tourist and resident friendly municipality, it has to move out of the 19th century and clean up its act. Water and wastewater infrastructure is a basic requirement of any modern municipality. Furthermore, this is not just a Saint John issue. The Saint John Harbour is the gateway of the Saint John river system, which extends 670 km through New Brunswick into Quebec and Maine. Millions of anadromous fishes, including Atlantic salmon, sturgeon, shad, gaspereau, striped bass and smelt, move through the narrow confines of the Reversing Falls on their way to spawning grounds. As such, the provincial and the federal governments also have a responsibility to address this issue quickly and decisively.

We can only hope that the progress made towards trilateral government discussions (implied in the recent funding announcement in Saint John) is a sign of bigger things to come.