Whether it was fake news, alternative facts or just a simple misunderstanding, one thing is clear — raw sewage has not been dumped into the Columbia River from a treatment plant reported to be serving the “City of Trail.”
The Trail Times reached out to local officials and the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary on Monday morning seeking clarification after a U.S. digital news story surfaced over the weekend.
The report stated that heavy rain and snow led to an overflow in the Trail plant, causing approximately 940,000 U.S. gallons of raw sewage to overflow onto the ground and into the river. In response to these claims, the Northeast Tri-County Health District was recommending river users exercise caution when in contact with river water in the area near the International border.
Simply put, this did not happen, says the regional district’s John McLean.
“Nothing went out on the ground, nothing was spilled,” McLean told the Trail Times. “The only thing we reported and the only thing we experienced was we went over our permit levels, but everything went through the plant – simply put, we exceeded our permit for volume, end of story.”
McLean clarified the treatment plant, called the Columbia Pollution Control Centre, has an operating permit that allows a daily discharge of 13,600 cubic metres.
What did happen at the site, which is located just off Highway 3B, was treated discharge exceeded the daily limit by about 3,500 cubic metres over two days.
That is not unusual for this time of year when “I/I” (inflow and infiltration) is high due to heavy rain combined with rapid snow melt.
In other words, runoff enters the sanitary sewer system, causes dilution, and leads to increased sewage volumes.
Again, the overage that was discharged into the Columbia River was treated per the control centre’s regulated standards, it was not raw sewage.
“What happens is through I/I the water gets into the pipe and makes it way to the plant, but you still treat that level,” said McLean. “So the fact that we went up 1,600 cubic metres a couple days that week, the sewage is still going through the plant.”
The waste is processed the same way it is every day before it’s discharged into the river, he continued.
“We report when we exceed our permits, and the only thing we are exceeding is volume,” McLean emphasized. “Other elements that we have in our permit are, that we have to treat to a certain level – and I can pretty much guarantee you that the sewage going out still met those levels.”
Columbia Pollution Control Centre, photo Rossland News
Although the effluent was treated per regulation, the RDKB is still responsible to report volume surplus to PEP (Provincial Emergency Program) for two reasons: the discharge flows into fresh water; and the outfall is in close proximity to the International Border.
Therein may lie the misunderstanding.
“We (PEP) have an automatic referral, or phone call, down to the health units in the States to say, ‘Hey this is happening,’” said McLean. “So where they got this overflow onto the ground, I don’t know because it didn’t happen.”
When and if there is a raw sewage spill, the scope of emergency response is broad and public.
“There have been overflows in the past, when tree roots or a rock blocks a line,” McLean said.
He recalled when the regional line broke on the Old Trail Bridge a few years ago.
“That is an example, and when those things happen we get very excited and have a whole lot of procedures (in place),” he concluded.
“But this kind of thing, where it is still all flowing through the treatment plant, we are concerned, because it’s clearly not ideal and we would like to remove I/I.
“But we’ve experienced this in the past, it’s nothing unusual.”
The Trail Times reached out to the Northeast Tri-County Health District via email, but did not receive a response by press time.