Water treatment discussions ongoing

·5 min read

Discussions between the Town of Hinton and West Fraser about the future of water treatment have been ongoing and a solution is coming closer, says a West Fraser spokesperson.

Joyce Wagenaar, corporate spokesperson for the company, said that discussions between the two parties on a mutually-acceptable solution are in the final stages.

“Now the water treatment plant is being discussed again. Both parties are working with purpose to find a solution to this final aspect of the transfer,” Wagenaar said.

She added that West Fraser looks forward to providing more information when there are developments to share.

Hinton’s water treatment plant was a hot button topic during the recent municipal election and an issue that most candidates said needs to be addressed.

The Town of Hinton stated that West Fraser’s agreement does not ask for the Town to “move the plant” but looks for a bypass option or solution where the Town is provided with only raw river water, relieving West Fraser of its initial treatment stage.

The Town intends to maximise its investments made to the equipment installed in the West Fraser facility.

“The current agreement included the recommendation of a “preferred and mutually acceptable Bypass Option” on or before June 30, 2018,” stated Carlos Tenias Gil, Hinton’s communications coordinator via email.

The target completion of the bypass solution was outlined to be by Jan. 1, 2022. Those dates have been rescheduled and delayed due to organizational changes, Tenias Gil said. The goal of the Town is to develop a long-term secure solution for the Town’s potable water treatment and supply.

For the Town to move towards its own plant, an operational framework first needs to be jointly developed by the Town and West Fraser, defining what is reasonable and acceptable to both parties, Tenias Gil said.

Two or three operational options with associated capital costs can be determined and finalized.

“Once the desired operational option is selected, engineering and design can be undertaken.Once the preliminary design is in progress, capital funding for the project can be pursued (including the pursuit of applicable grants), thereby permitting final design and construction commencement to be initiated,” Tenias Gil wrote in an email.

Since the construction of the pulp and paper mill in Hinton in the late 1950s, the facility supplied potable water to local residents and businesses. It is one of the oldest public–private partnerships in Alberta. West Fraser and the Town collaborated on potable water treatment options for Hinton since 2007 when West Fraser notified the Town that they would be withdrawing from treating potable water within 11-13 years.

The Town invested in the capital infrastructure for the plant since then and is now responsible for the safety and quality of the drinking water, explained Wagenaar.

Since 2018, West Fraser’s service is limited to providing partially treated water to the Town who then brings it to a drinking quality standard. The Town’s equipment that provides the final stages of treatment is located within the West Fraser facility, alongside the company’s water treatment equipment.

A transfer project of the Water Treatment Plant to transition the entire responsibility of providing potable water to the Town from West Fraser began in 2015.

The project was split into two phases; the objective of Phase I was to transfer the operation of the potable water equipment and systems installed in 2011 to the Town of Hinton. After this transfer, West Fraser’s role was reduced to providing only partially treated water.

Since 2018, Aquatera Utilities Inc has been processing the water for the Town of Hinton with an agreement in effect for five years. This agreement will automatically renew for a further term of one year, with an option for both parties to negotiate the terms and conditions for a longer contract extension.

The objective of Phase II is for West Fraser to only provide water from the Athabasca River to the Town of Hinton for full treatment and relieve West Fraser of any water treatment responsibilities. This has not yet been completed.

The original timeline of when West Fraser wanted to complete this transfer has lapsed and there have been unanticipated priorities such as the pandemic that required attention instead, Wagenaar explained.

The transfer project is a result of changes in potable water supply standards and guidelines in 2006 that resulted in the upgrade of the water treatment process in 2011. Since then, the requirements and responsibilities for those operating potable water treatment processes in Alberta have increased significantly.

Along with these changes, West Fraser cited that water treatment was not a “core component” of their business moving forward and informed the Town of Hinton that they wished to remove their liability with regards to supplying potable water.

In 2015, the Town stated that they proactively implemented a water treatment plant utility surcharge of $5 per billing period, which is still being charged to residents currently, to cover some of the anticipated costs associated with the transition. This surcharge addresses and supports the water treatment plant capital, bypass and transition, and is utilized for future costs of upgrading and transitioning the plant to municipal standards.

Reserve contributions continue to be made each year into the water reserve. Currently the Town has $500,000 at the end of 2020 in a specific water treatment plant capital reserve and another $584,723 in the water and sewer reserve.

Since 2015, the $5 surcharge has contributed to many required water capital related projects, Hinton’s administration said.

Costs in the 2021 budget regarding West Fraser and the water treatment plant include power, rent, and lagoon maintenance, adding up to $310,000.

In the draft 2022 capital budget and draft 2023-2026 capital plan brought to council on Nov. 23, building a reliable water treatment facility for the Town of Hinton was estimated at $24 million, to be mostly grant funded. According to this draft, preliminary and partial design of Phase II would be done in 2022 with the earliest possible construction start in 2024.

To permit the Town to take river water from West Fraser and provide potable water to its residents and businesses in Phase II of the separation, the Town will have to design and construct a new facility in stages to “bypass” West Fraser’s existing pre-treatment processes.

Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice

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