Residents on the south side of the McKenzie interchange project are furious that an error by the province’s contractor forced at least a few hundred gallons of raw sewage up and onto the surface of the ground earlier this month.
The District of Saanich confirmed the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s project contractor was seen pumping excess storm water into the Saanich sewer system on Dec. 11 and then again on Feb. 9. In both cases it caused a surplus and overflowed out of a manhole cover downstream, said Saanich director of engineering Harley Machielse.
“There was sewage coming out of the hole of the manhole cover, It’s diluted with storm water, but still raw sewage,” Machielse said. “On both occasions our public works crews responded and worked with the contractor to cease operations.”
It’s illegal to tie into the Saanich sanitary system at anytime and the action was not permitted by Saanich, Machielse added.
Despite notifying the contractor, Jacob Bros., that the Dec. 11 action was not permitted, it happened again.
“I’m disappointed it happened. It’s the responsibility of the contractor and the ministry, it’s up to them to do a better job,” said Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell. “Obviously it’s a misunderstanding or mistake.”
The ministry contends, however, that Saanich knew the contractor was tying into the sanitary system.
The sewage runoff comes after a November incident by the same McKenzie Interchange project team which sent thousands of gallons of sediment-filled water into the Colquitz, a federally recognized Greater Victoria Bird Sanctuary with spawning coho salmon. The Colquitz estuary is home to eagles, osprey, kingfishers, swans and great blue herons.
MOTI said it’s aware and acknowledges that any sewage spill, no matter how minor, that happens in connection to the work on the McKenzie overpass project is unacceptable, said spokesperson Trish Rorison.
“We have put the contractor on notice that we will issue a stop work order should there be any other similar incidents and that any additional costs be borne by them and not the project so that the taxpayers are protected,” Rorison said. “We hire contractors to do work on behalf of the people of B.C. and we expect their work to be done to the highest standards of care and attention to the health of the residents and the environment.”
Following the spill MOTI and Saanich both took steps to assess any possible damage or impact as the runoff did reach the Colquitz River. Water quality testing was performed by both the CRD and the third-party environmental consultant, Golder Associates. Golder’s tests showed no E. coli-related concerns with no risk to the health of residents while CRD said it did only a few tests and fecal counts were slightly above normal which is actually not unusual this time of year.
However, environmental advocate and steward to the Colquitz estuary Dorothy Chambers calls the sewer breaches a “complete failure by the contractor to protect this environment,” and questions the timing and location of the testing.
“With recent huge volumes of sediment flows [in November] from the McKenzie interchange site, now sewage is added to further contaminate the feeding grounds of migrating birds, some of which are species at risk or of special concern, but all are important wildlife,” Chambers said.
The manhole cover which overflowed is believed to be on a homeowner’s property though residents in the vicinity are unwilling to draw attention to themselves in relation to the incident.
One resident, who lives at the mouth of the Colquitz River and wished not to be named, said he is very concerned.
“We share the same sewer line, so had the overload been greater, I wonder if it could have possibly overflowed on our property or even into our home,” he said. “Most disturbing is the apparent lack of accountability – [not hearing from ministry that there was a spill] is unacceptable… it wasn’t published, we weren’t notified in any way, there was no signs, nothing here.”
Lindsay Critchley lives on Portage Inlet, several hundred meters from the mouth of the Colquitz. Even so, she’s seen more silt and “dirty water” during the McKenzie interchange project than in any of her 42 years.
“I’m just a lay person but what alerted me is the water,” Critchley said. “I visit the water regularly and [recently] the water was like brown soup, you couldn’t even see through the water, it was completely, utterly opaque.”
The water colour varies with the tide she added, but overall not only is the water much dirtier but it takes years for the ocean and river to replace the saltwater-freshwater balance that exists in that end of the inlet.