Every time you run the tap or flush a toilet, remember three of the province’s largest municipalities are set to break the law. At the end of 2020, they’re expected to be in breach of the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, under the federal Fisheries Act.
There is not enough time left to do what they need to do to be compliant, leaving some difficult decisions at the feet of the federal government.
Come what may, residents of St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Paradise are poised to see increased tax bills — St. John’s is estimating a more than 25 per cent increase in water tax ($150 per year in water tax) — to pay for a legally required, costly upgrade to regional wastewater treatment.
“We’re very disappointed that a deal to reduce costs has been extended to the province but not to the municipalities." — St. John's mayor Danny Breen
The issue has existed for years. The legal clock has simply been run down, as successive governments at the municipal, provincial and federal level have failed to get a solution in place.
“This is a serious matter facing our municipalities. The decision to speak publicly today was not made lightly,” Paradise Mayor Dan Bobbett said at a joint news conference in St. John’s Thursday, along with St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen and Mount Pearl Mayor Dave Aker.
The mayors are bringing attention to the issue in a federal election year. It may or may not help, given it was also made an issue during the last federal election.
What’s the problem?
The wastewater regulations were introduced in 2012 to address the more than 150 billion litres of untreated and undertreated sewage estimated to enter Canadian waters every year.
After years of consultations, in the final regulations, the federal government dictated the level of treatment needed for wastewater before it could be released from municipal systems into the environment. The requirements were tailored — based on individual systems and wastewater samples.
At the end of testing in 2014, St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Paradise were told they need to upgrade the shared Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Facility. Their deadline was the end of 2020.
The project — changing the facility on Southside Road in St. John’s from a primary- to a secondary-level treatment facility — was estimated to cost about $220 million and need at least five years to complete, but no action was taken for years. There was a three-way failure (the different levels deny responsibility) to settle how the costs would be shared between the municipal, provincial and federal governments.
After years passed without agreement, an updated cost estimate was needed. It was completed earlier this year and the project is now estimated at a capital cost of $255 million. This is still a preliminary estimate, being before detailed design and engineering (even this week, the mayors couldn’t say if blasting into the Southside Hills would be needed).
According to the mayors, there was a change in the expected cost share. The province is now paying less on the project, while the municipalities are paying more. The proposal is the federal government would pay 44 per cent, the province 23 per cent and municipalities 33 per cent (instead of 50-25-25).
“We’re very disappointed that a deal to reduce costs has been extended to the province but not to the municipalities," Breen said. "At the very least, the provincial and municipal share should be the same.”
Breen said it should be considered that overruns and operating costs for the upgraded wastewater treatment facility will also fall to the municipalities. Among other things, for example, the treatment plant will have a higher power bill than the existing facility. And on overruns, he said, the existing facility was originally budgeted at roughly $96 million and finished at $170 million.
Inside the trio of municipalities, the City of St. John’s is responsible for roughly 84 per cent of the municipal piece of the pie, Mount Pearl 12 per cent and Paradise four per cent.
Federal appeals made
There is the deadline of the end of 2020. There is also the reality the project is demanded regardless, with the municipalities facing “significant fines and penalties” under the act.
“We’ve discussed that, but we certainly haven’t gotten into it in any great detail,” Breen said of consequences on the horizon.
The circumstances haven’t changed from March, when The Telegram reported on a Hail Mary letter from Breen to the feds.
Breen said he spoke about the issue in person with federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna in May.
Aker said he spoke with St. John’s South-Mount Pearl MP Seamus O’Regan on Tuesday.
The mayors say MPs from the province have been supportive of the municipalities’ position, but unable to change the status quo on the cost-sharing formula.
The mayors are asking residents to express their concerns about the legal issue and associated costs to both their MPs and MHAs.
(CORRECTION: This is an updated version, correcting the estimated increase to St. John's water tax.)