May 29, 2013

Sewage debate comes full circle after 18 years

As published in The Erin Advocate

At the recent public meeting on Erin's quest for a sewage system, while residents took turns denouncing the idea, Matt Pearson of BM Ross turned to me and said, "These meetings are all the same."

He meant no disrespect to the speakers – it's not an easy thing to stand up and address a large crowd. But as an infrastructure consultant, he has seen how communities respond when they fear a major upheaval.

I was looking back at The Advocate's coverage of a public meeting in September 1995, during Erin village's unsuccessful attempt to plan and get funding for a sewage plant. The similarities to today's SSMP process are striking. Here are excerpts from the 1995 story by reporter Robert Burr:

There was standing room only last week as Reeve Terry Mundell opened the meeting on the proposed $25 million sewage treatment plant for the village of Erin. The reeve began the meeting by assuring the fifty people present that council is still some way away from making a decision on whether or not the village will have a sewage treatment plant.

He pointed out that there are some severe cost implications associated with the plant, and assured the audience that no final site for the plant has yet been selected. "Council still has a lot of work to do on this project," he said.

A member of the audience expressed his concern that the community had not been well enough informed about the sewage treatment plant and a request was made that the project be put on hold until a consensus is arrived at. There was also a request that all engineering documents be made available for public review.

Reeve Mundell answered by stating that the documents were not ready for public view, as they are still waiting for input from various government agencies. Mundell pointed out that this was the third public meeting on sewage since 1994. The Reeve added that a consultant would help the village plan a financial strategy to deal with the cost of the project.

"We have to have some serious financial reviews to see what we look like over the next 20 years," Mundell said.

Dale Murray of Triton Engineering told the group that the long term impact of the existing system on the West Credit River and the village ground water had been studied. The village is taking drinking water from the same area we discharge our waste, Murray said. He pointed out that one of the village wells has already been shut down because of high nitrate levels.

"If things are allowed to continue in this way for the next twenty years, collectively, what is going to be the impact?" the engineer asked. He also stated that the repair of existing septic beds can be difficult and very expensive.

The whole project hinges on the amount of funding that will be available from the province. It is hoped that the province will pick up about 73 per cent of the cost, leaving the village with about $4 million to finance.

Several people brought up the problems of odours and noise, but Murray felt that these are not problems in modern state of the art facilities. As the meeting drew to a close, a number of the people present became increasingly concerned about the lack of public input. Reeve Mundell agreed that the council might set up a citizen's committee on the project.

At another public meeting three months later (with no citizen's committee organized), resident Ron Goddard questioned the whole process.

"The public has to have it proved that a sewage treatment plant is even needed," he said. "With better public information and facts at the first meeting, you might have found out that the public doesn't want it."

According to Goddard, many people feel that the whole process should be taken back to the beginning and begun again.

Reeve Mundell said that council has concluded there is contamination of ground water, but has not concluded that a sewage plant is the only option. He said council is looking for the most reasonable, affordable solution.