Parliament station stinks, and so does the secrecy about what's causing it

Parliament station sometimes smells bad because a sewer pipe was punctured during the construction of the Confederation Line's downtown tunnel.

But it's the fact that the city apparently hid this fact for four months that really stinks.

From almost the moment the LRT was opened to the public in mid-September, riders have complained of a frequent stench of, well, human waste. The obnoxious odour even has its own Twitter account: @LRTstank.

 

The first explanation came Sept. 18 from OC Transpo's general manager, John Manconi, who told the transit commission that the smell came from moisture in the tunnel. 

 

But last week, the city admitted it knew months ago that a sewer line had been punctured during construction — a discovery city workers made during a routine inspection of the sewer on Aug 9.

I've smelt mould and I've smelt sealant and none of that has ever smelled like human sewage. Sorry to be gross. - Coun. Riley Brockington

And yet, despite the issue of the smell at Parliament Station floating up again and again, no one at the city mentioned a sewer puncture until Nov. 6. That's when the city's rail director, Michael Morgan, told transit commissioners the rods used during the tunnel's construction to keep things in place punctured a sewer line in a couple locations.

"So there is a working theory that that's contributing to the smell at that location," Morgan said at the time.

'It smells like sewage, period'

Why the issue of a sewer puncture was still a "working theory" in November, when the city had known about it months earlier, is unclear.

Coun. Riley Brockington, who sits on the transit commission, said he's been told the smell came from slow-drying sealant, and then was told it was mould and mildew — despite olfactory evidence to the contrary.

"I've smelt mould and I've smelt sealant and none of that has ever smelled like human sewage," Brockington told CBC. "Sorry to be gross, but what you've heard from passengers over and over again, when they've been put on camera or quoted in the paper, is that it smells like sewage, period."

And yet, as Brockington pointed out, neither OC Transpo nor other city officials acknowledged riders' very real, and sometimes highly unpleasant, experience for months.

"No one's ever said it smells like anything other than sewage," the councillor said. 

Cause of delay unclear

It's not clear why the work to fix the sewer didn't begin for months after it was first discovered.

According to an email attributed to Morgan, the city had been working on a plan with Rideau Transit Group, the consortium that built the Confederation Line.

Morgan said the city needed a noise bylaw exemption to do the work at night, but downtown Coun. Catherine McKenney said they've routinely approved these sorts of exemptions within 24 hours of being asked.

But the real concern isn't that it's taking longer than anyone would like for the sewer puncture to be fixed. It's that no one at the city was open about what was causing the issue.

"We're all big boys and girls here and we can accept facts … just identify what the problem is," Brockington said. "It makes it worse by telling us it's mould or mildew or any other guesses that may be out there, and just not getting to the exact nature of the problem."

Giacomo Panico/CBC

Issues with transparency

The good news is that the city expects the sewer repairs to be done by the end of this week.

The bad news is that this sort of obfuscation around transit and LRT does not appear to be isolated to sewage smells in the tunnel.

Back in 2017, Manconi refused to confirm the actual completion date for the Confederation Line set out in the contract.

Earlier this year, officials wouldn't tell councillors whether SNC-Lavalin met the minimum grade in its technical bid for Trillium Line Stage 2. (It did not.)

And in June, Manconi refused to talk to CBC about exorbitant incentives OC Transpo was paying its drivers to take on overtime.

Finally, on Tuesday, CBC reported OC Transpo only issued public alerts for about one-third of the bus trips it cancelled on Saturday.

Running a transit system is complicated, and problems are sure to arise. But OC Transpo does answer to the public, so when the public has questions, they're owed an honest answer.