Environmentalists and property owners along the Brokenhead River are raising red flags about Beausejour’s plan to dump heavy wastewater from a new treatment plant into a channel that has many rare species, and is popular for swimming and fishing.
“A river should not be dumping grounds for anyone. Water is a basic human right and this was just written off completely. None of our concerns were taken into account,” said Aliza Delwar, who lives part-time at a residence near the River’s Edge Golf Course.
The Manitoba Water Services Board accepted a construction company’s $12.4-million bid to build the facility last month. The province had approved the proposal to upgrade the town’s water system to serve the growing population in late 2020.
The site will use a purification process known as reverse osmosis. Liquid will be filtered through a microporous membrane to eliminate usable water and concentrate; the latter — reject minerals, metals and organics — will be dumped into the Brokenhead River.
The initial blueprint, first advertised to the public via community newspaper bulletin in June 2020, sparked backlash from ecologists, scientists and others.
The province collected nearly 50 submissions from concerned citizens about everything from the potential harm to aquatic life, to its impact on the wells of residents who live outside the town, to how drought and dams could affect how quickly concentrate is diluted.
The arrival of building materials for the plant (including a pipeline that is being installed along Park Avenue and Highway 44 to dump waste into the river) has renewed concerns. Residents argue there’s been minimal public consultation and consideration for the project’s impact on the waterway.
One full-time resident on the river said it’s ironic she has to pay to maintain a holding tank to ensure her water waste, be it from a shower or otherwise, does not harm the channel.
“It’s $126 for every pump out and we’ve got to get it pumped out every four weeks. That’s a lot of money per year. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. You don’t want to contaminate the river, but then you’ve got the town going and doing it,” she said.
“I understand the town needs a new plant, but to dump the waste into somebody else’s backyard and make it their problem? It just doesn’t seem right.”
The plant is expected to open by late 2023. The dumping site will be approximately three kilometres east of the town, near homes, cottages and a seasonal campground site.
A retired professor of water quality and toxicology at the University of Winnipeg penned a 49-page report to the province outlining her worries. In her presentation, Eva Pip questioned why reverse osmosis was chosen for the project, given the process is wasteful, and noted bioaccumulation’s negative effects on ecosystems.
“The large difference between the effluent and the river water in the vicinity of the discharge and beyond, will impact many aquatic organisms in the river, which contains vulnerable and endangered soft-water species such as the nationally recognized endangered chestnut lamprey,” she wrote.
Pip has been studying the Brokenhead River since 1975. During that time, she has witnessed growing development and pollution take a toll on the ecosystem.
An excerpt from her submission states concentrate could change community composition and contribute to the disappearance of some species downstream, with a related reduction in species diversity and ecosystem stability.
“The concentrate will also contribute nitrogen and phosphorus to the nutrient load of Lake Winnipeg,” she said.
A provincial spokesperson said Manitoba Environment, Climate and Parks is “confident” the waste will not adversely affect the river following a “rigorous environmental assessment” and “thorough review by scientists and other experts.”
They helped to inform the terms and conditions of the town’s licence to protect the environment, per the province.
“The likelihood of unforeseen impact on the Brokenhead River is very low. The plant’s treatment process is well understood. It uses technology that is commonly used as best practice throughout the country,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement, adding remediation is available if deemed necessary.
The spokesperson said the town will closely monitor the effect on the waterway for the first two years of operations and that period could be extended, depending on findings.
Once the site is up and running, wastewater is projected to be dumped into the river at a rate of roughly six litres per second.
Pip estimates 67 Olympic-sized swimming pools of wastewater will enter the waterway annually. As far as she is concerned, the resulting impact still needs to be “properly assessed.”
In her submission to the province, she noted she has reviewed and evaluated many environmental impact models in sewage, water treatment and other areas over the last 50-plus years. “Nobody is ever held accountable when the projections and models fail, and reality turns out to be very different,” she wrote.
Beausejour Mayor Ray Schirle did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Neither did Chief Gordon Bluesky of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.
The reeve of the Rural Municipality of Brokenhead said the province has addressed the RM’s concerns.
“It’s not our water treatment plant. It’s the town of Beausejour’s — and they’ve fulfilled the needs of the province…There’s got to be progression and growth, and there’s a cost to everything,” said Brad Saluk.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press