Listen Up! Sewage spill raises lots of questions with few answers forthcoming

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

Do we have a sewage problem?

Sewage……it’s something we don’t like to think about. You just push a handle or a button and away it goes never to bother you again. Until of course there is a leak or a backup and then all hell breaks loose. If you have ever experienced raw sewage in your basement or anywhere else for that matter, you know what I am talking about.

Late last month in Huntsville, there was a fairly serious sewage leak which pumped the bad stuff to several homes and businesses on or near Highway 60 and very close to Fairy Lake. It was a big deal to them; thousands of dollars in damages, hours of dealing with the yucky stuff and putting up with serious odour, not to mention the prospect of disease. Some places were uninhabitable. At least one business was completely wiped out and may not be able to reopen for three or four months.

It wasn’t particularly helpful in my view, when a District official opined that, “Domestic sewage is not hazardous but there is a risk of disease and bacterial infection if good hygiene practice is not followed.” That sounds to me like someone saying to these poor souls, don’t blame us, it’s your fault if you don’t wash your hands and face. A touch arrogant methinks.

District Government is King when it comes to sewer and water in Muskoka. They own it. They control it and we pay for it. It is reasonable therefore to expect the District to know what caused the sewage backup in Huntsville. Yet almost three weeks later there is no real explanation. Is there a problem with the pumping station? Did it have anything to do with the road construction on Highway 60? Are we sure the problem is localized and not indicative of a systemic problem with the entire system? We don’t know because the District won’t tell us. By now they should have had some answers but all they will say is, “Investigation into the cause of sewage backup is ongoing.”

One would also think that given the serous nature of a sewer blockage, the District would have advised the Town of Huntsville about the problem and kept them up to date on its cause. But Town officials confirm that there has been no communication with Bracebridge officials about any of this. Why is that important? Because people affected by sewage issues or any other similar problem will not look to a faceless explanation from Bracebridge, but rather to their Mayor and locally elected officials who deserve to be fully briefed and kept in the picture. That is communications 101.

Of course, another serious concern in relation to the sewage backup is Fairy Lake. There are indications that untreated sewage flowed there. We do not know how much and we do not know what harm has been done. What we do know is that the quality of our lakes in Huntsville is directly related to our economy. We deserve answers here and we need to know what steps are being taken to avoid future occurrences. Hopefully, our Council and the various Lake Associations in the area will demand that we get some.

To add insult to injury to the people and businesses affected by the Highway 60 sewage backup, the District assumes no responsibility for the damage caused by their system. It’s a too-bad, so-sad policy. They are simply off the hook. Home owners and business operators are responsible for their own insurance deductibles and business interruption losses. Apparently, it says so in the contract. Insurance companies and individuals cannot sue the District to recover their losses. One would think liability insurance from the District should cover that without onerous cost to taxpayers.

In the great scheme of things, the sewage backup on Highway 60 may not be seen as that big a deal except, of course, to the people who were directly affected. And in fairness, it must be said that the District staff on the ground acted quickly and effectively to resolve the immediate problem. But what happens if we have a larger issue and what lessons have been learned from the incident that did happen? What protocol should be place to ensure more effective communications with the local municipality affected? How will we find out if our sewer system is up to date and adequate to meet the needs of a growing municipality? Of equal importance is to determine what further measures are required to protect our waterways.

One can only hope that our District Government will step up to the plate and deal with some of these issues. With local elections on the horizon, perhaps that will be the time to make sure that they do.

(Update: The District released a statement regarding the system failure on November 21. Read it here.)

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8 Comments

  1. Right on, Hugh!
    It’s almost as if there was a cover up…It was 3 weeks before the tale came out in the media for the benefit of the general public…and I was wondering why one of my fave eateries was closed when I went by to have a nosh restock my larder… now I know….and, even though I’m a good 20-30 feet above a pumping station, I have neighbours “above” me, so I now pay more for insurance in order to be protected.
    …but that’s another story for another day…[the zero risk policy of insurers = controlling businesses and people to boost their profits by telling them what they can and cannot do….]

  2. As a resort owner and a lakefront resident on Mary Lake, I have been concerned for some time about storm water flushing through untreated sewage from the Mountainview Sewage Treatment Plant.
    This latest problem with the attendant spill into Fairy Lake and hence down to Mary Lake raises my level of concern.
    Can anyone advise me as to the progress ( or lack thereof) in updating or replacing the sewage treatment plant so that storm water flow -through that includes partially-treated or un-treated sewage discharge can be handled properly in the future?
    Dave Scott
    Clyffe House Cottage Resort
    Mary Lake

  3. Hugh it is good that you are holding Sewer and Water’s feet to the fire on this but we have 4 District elected representatives. If as you infer they have no knowledge of the cause of this spill, then what are they doing? We elect the Mayor and three member of Council to the District Government for this very reason. If they are covering up we need to know why, if they don’t know the answer then why not?

  4. Hugh,
    It would be a good thing to publish a statement from District as to what, exactly, happened. Forget all the film flam. What happened, what has been done to prevent it from happening again.
    You would be doing us all a service if you could find this out and publish it here.

    Jim Boyes

  5. Mechanical failures happen and always will but I’m with Jim Boyes on this one. A brief and accurate explanation of what happened and what has been done about it to prevent it happening in the future sure would be nice.
    One gets a little tired of officials, elected or otherwise, who either can’t or won’t explain things in a straightforward manner. The frustration creates a lack of trust between whatever department one is dealing with and the “rest of us” and this is not a good way to build a successful future relationship.

    Fortunately this spill is late in the season, small and will most likely not have any long term effects on the lake but it is important to remember that for our area the quality of our water is the prime reason people visit as tourists and indeed want to live here. If anything makes our water of poor quality it will be disastrous for tourism.

  6. Hugh, good for you and the Doppler team for shining a spotlight on this disturbing matter. In an age when sensitivity to protection of the environment is a top priority, it’s surprising to see an incident like this, and to learn that it took three weeks for the District (remind me what portion of our taxes go there!) to come clean (in a manner of speaking) about it.

  7. This is not the first time that we have had a sewage spill in our municipality. Has there ever been a proactive Huntsville government representative expressing considerable continuous concern and following through on the multiple issues of pollution in our municipality? Not one comes to mind. Sewage spill is a an environmental catastrophe. What is the guesstimate of the magnitude of this spill? Are we going to be told? What is the environmental degradation as a result? What impact does it directly have on Fairy Lake? It is common knowledge that sewage is a deadly contaminent for all living species, especially human. One could extensively elaborate about the harmful components that constitute a health hazard here. We need elaborate fail proof safe guards put in place immediately. If it takes weeks to determine the problem, then there is something desperately wrong with the system. Is it inferior quality equipment, lack of expertise in operation, what is it? We, the people, are paying the bill, therefore, we need prompt succinct answers and assurances of no further occurrences.

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