By Laura Stovel
We have all had our well, never mind moments: the times when we pour or throw a little bit of paint thinner, household chemicals, or – yes, women – tampons and applicators down the drain or toilet. We may feel a twinge of guilt but for most toxic liquids we can reasonably ask, “what are the alternatives?”
Once the liquids are down the drain it’s someone else’s problem. Out of sight; out of mind. Either the chemicals pass through part of the 63 kms of sewer line to the sewage treatment plant or they are washed straight into the river via a storm drain – think pesticides on a rainy day.
The sewage treatment plant in Revelstoke’s industrial park is properly set up to handle sewage, not toxic chemicals or solid waste. A plethora of bacteria inhabit the two open sewage ponds that, together, cover two acres. These ‘good bacteria’ clean the pond by consuming the 600 to one million gallons of effluent that enters the system each day, explains technician Steve McKnight. City utilities foreman Doug Pendergast observes that the bacteria can be seen working. “It actually moves the water,” he said.
The two main problems for the operators at the plant are solids, most commonly tampon applicators and, even more serious, toxic chemicals. Solids can be picked up by a big machine called a ‘monster separator’ and compressed into a small package of garbage that goes to the landfill.
During our visit, the sewage ponds were surprisingly (to this visitor) low in odour, a sign that the system is working properly. If the bacteria are healthy, the ponds will work but if chemicals thrown down the drain kill the bacteria, the pond will turn black and die.
“That’s when the place stinks,” said technician Reinie Bittner. This happened only twice in the 13 years that Pendergast has worked for the City — in 1998 and most recently in 2008. Bringing a dead sewage pond back to health is not easy, and “no one will tell you how to fix it,” said Bittner.
Once the sewage has passed through the “monster separator,” it will spend the next few weeks in the two sewage ponds: five days in the first pond and 15 days in the second one. After the bacteria has cleaned it up, it heads to the final contact chamber where it is chlorinated and then neutralized with a small amount of sodium bisulphite before it is released into the Illecillewaet River.
Although some people may not care about what they pour down the drain, many people would dispose of toxic chemicals properly if information and options were available. Very little information is available to the public about where to take toxic materials and not all chemicals and liquid wastes are provided for, in particular those toxic materials that are not covered by a stewardship program.
The Columbia Shuswap Regional District has a useful brochure that indicates where to take most garbage that does not belong in the landfill but the CSRD website is very difficult to navigate. To save you the frustrations I had, you can find the link here.
Most paint cans and thinners can go to the Bottle Depot but there are limitations – for example, craft paints and unlabeled paint cans cannot go there. Oil and oil filters can go to Grizzly Auto Repairs and Silverline Transmission & Auto Repair Centre in the Big Eddy.
The CSRD had a toxic waste collection drive last autumn, with the help of North Columbia Environmental Society volunteers, but no drive is planned for 2011 – it’s just too expensive, said CSRD waste reduction facilitator, Carmen Fennell.
Perhaps the best way for Revelstoke citizens to prevent harmful chemicals from reaching the watershed, either directly through storm drains or indirectly via the sewage treatment plant, is to reduce the harmful chemicals they use in the first place. The proposed pesticide use bylaw that is up for discussion until May 17 is an important start. Many other toxic materials can be replaced by more benign ones – replacing harmful cleaning agents with vinegar, for example. The North Columbia Environmental Society has EcoFact sheets online that provide environmentally-friendly alternatives to the use of toxic chemical – see, for example, the fact sheet on household cleaners.
Keeping the sewage treatment system and our watershed healthy is the responsibility of many players: the public; the City; CSRD; and those, like NCES and other environmental groups, who watch out for the environment. There seem to be opportunities for better coordination between them to make sure that information and options are available to the public – for example, a link could be made to the CSRD information brochure on the City website. The interest in the issue seems to be there; now it’s just time to connect the dots.