Town employees armed with dump trucks, vacuum trucks, excavators and other equipment removed stinky silt from Brooklyn Creek on Sept. 3 | Photos submitted
Tonnes of sewage mud removed from Brooklyn Creek, nearby residents say its been piling up for years
Following the publication of a Decafnation commentary on Friday about leaking pipes that spilled raw sewage into Brooklyn Creek, the Town of Comox has gone on a hurried public relations campaign.
Mayor Russ Arnott has been posting on his Facebook page and doing media interviews this week even though he says he only found out about the leak on Saturday, three weeks after it occurred. And the town took the unusual step of issuing a news release on a Saturday, a day after the original Decafnation article appeared.
The PR campaign has minimized the seriousness of raw sewage leaking into the creek for an undetermined length of time and downplayed any ill effects the leak might have had on fish or dogs and other animals that drink from the water or children who play in the creek.
The town’s news release dated Saturday, Sept. 25 characterized the problem as “a small sanitary leak” that it “discovered” on Friday, Sept. 3, and assured citizens that the matter was remedied that same afternoon by removing tons of “contaminated water and soil from the creek.”
A test of the creek’s water quality after the remediation measures showed no public health concerns, according to Chief Administrative Officer Jordan Wall.
While the town says it found the source of the sewage leak on Sept. 3, it has not said how long the failed sewer and stormwater pipes had been leaking. Nor have they stated the length of time between when town employees first noticed diminished water quality and when they located the source of the problem.
But thanks to multiple Decafnation readers, we have learned that raw sewage may have been leaking into Brooklyn Creek for a long time, possibly years.
That would explain high levels of dissolved oxygen in the creek, unusual plant growth near Noel Avenue, dead smolt fish found on the creek’s bank and a definite sewage odour noticed by at least one person who walks the Brooklyn trails regularly.
PIECING TOGETHER WHAT HAPPENED
According to the town’s news release the sewer breach occurred near the Hillside Avenue-Highland Road intersection where stormwater and sewage manholes are located side by side. The town says concrete at the bottom of the sewage manhole eroded and flowed into a crack in a stormwater pipe one meter away
“These types of issues are increasingly common in these systems due to the age of some of the infrastructure,” Wall told Decafnation. He says the town plans to invest “heavily” in replacement and repair over the next several years.
Based on that explanation, the affected stormwater pipe would have to have discharged its polluted water into the creek somewhere upstream from the new culverts lower down on Noel Avenue. That’s because, as the town says, its response to discovering the leak included removing “contaminated soil” from the creek at the location of the new Noel Avenue culverts.
Neither Wall nor the town’s news release has said clearly that the removed soil was infused with the leaking raw sewage, but residents who live close to those culverts have told Decafnation that the smell of sewage was “overwhelming” as they watched town crews dig out tons of “contaminated soil.”
Asked if the septic smell had been strong, Brook Place Strata President Dennis Strand said, “Strong? That isn’t the word for it.”
And other residents of Brook Place, a 36-unit condominium building that borders the creek say that over the past two years they have observed unusual growth of plant life and silt buildup at the site of the culverts, and a definitive smell of sewage.
Carol Neufeld, a Brook Place resident who walks the creek trails every day, told Decafnation that she has noticed a septic smell along the creek for more than a year.
Strand says he and other nearby residents suspect that sewage may have been leaking into the creek at least since the Noel Avenue road work was conducted two years ago. But it’s also possible that sewage has been leaking into the creek for even longer and conceivably from multiple sources.
Strand says he was told by an environmental professional working at the site that there have been reports of toilet paper and lumps of human excrement floating in the creek.
ROLE OF THE NOEL AVENUE CULVERTS
But in a written response to the Brook Place concerns, Strand says Mayor Russ Arnott denied any problems of capacity or silt buildup with the culverts.
In the mayor’s letter dated Aug. 20, Arnott said the culverts were “working as expected.”
But just a week later, at 1 pm on Sept. 3, at the start of the long holiday weekend, “an army of people and equipment descended on us, full force,” Strand told Decafnation.
Strand and other residents watched as approximately 15 employees with two dump trucks, excavators, two vacuum trucks, backhoes and other heavy equipment spent more than six hours removing 15 truckloads of contaminated, stinky silt and plants from the culvert location. The crews came back over the weekend for another few hours.
The vacuum trucks were used to reach places the excavators could not.
Regular tandem-axle dump trucks can carry 12.5 tonnes and a vacuum truck holds about 12 tonnes. Fifteen loads (11 dump truck and four vacuum truckloads) would equal approximately 180 tonnes or nearly 396,000 pounds of sewage-infused silt.
But town CAO Wall disputes those estimations. He told Decafnation the town only removed 38 cubic meters of material or about 57 tonnes, equivalent to a little more than four truckloads, and that most of it was gravel.
Strand says that’s “just not true and the photographs we have prove it.”
He says other people who watched the six-hour operation counted 15 loads — 11 by dump trucks and two each by the two vacuum trucks.
“If they only took out 57 tonnes, why did they have two dump trucks and two vacuum trucks onsite,” he said.
Strand, a former two-term Comox Council member and Comox Valley Regional District director, also disputes the town’s claim in its Saturday press release that they discovered a sewage leak, found its location and fixed it, and then coordinated with federal and provincial agencies and mobilized a large contingent of employees and equipment all in the morning of a single day.
The reparation work at the culvert site began at 1 pm.
“They had to have known sooner. I know governments can’t do all of that in a half-day,” he said. “They didn’t come and remove the silt because of our complaints. The mayor had just said a week earlier that there wasn’t a problem there. So they came Friday (Sept. 3) afternoon because of the sewage leak.”
What really angers Brook Place residents, Strand said, is the fact that the town had for a long time failed to even acknowledge their complaints about a problem that could have affected the condo building.
“But all of a sudden they arrive in full force. Working overtime on a holiday weekend. As I said, they weren’t here for us,” Stand says.
Strand is particularly upset with how the council has handled the issue.
“Nobody is taking ownership for not doing it right (the culvert design) in the first place. They didn’t account for the periods of low flow in the creek,” he said.
“It’s total disrespect to me and our strata owners.”
TURBIDITY FROM NEW GRAVEL
The turbidity observed in the creek recently is linked but not directly related to the sewage discharge.
Following the clean-up of contaminated silt and vegetation below the new Noel Avenue culverts, well-intentioned streamkeepers laid down new gravel as part of the reparation measures for potential spawning fish. Some of the gravel was reportedly unwashed, meaning it wasn’t clean of sediment. A subsequent flush of rainwater sent the silt (turbidity) downstream.
Sources told Decafnation that the turbidity was temporary and not likely to have any long-term effect on the creek’s water quality.
OTHER POLLUTED COMOX CREEKS
Brooklyn Creek isn’t the only waterway within the Town of Comox that has been affected by high pollution levels.
The last measurement made by a homeowner of E. Coli in Golf Creek, which runs through downtown Comox (mostly channeled underground) was taken on Aug. 7, 2021 and showed 11,000 coliform units per 100 ml. The single sample threshold for closing a public beach is 400 cfu/100 ml.
That means the E. Coli measured in Golf Creek may be nearly 30 times the government guideline considered safe for human contact. On Aug. 19, 2020 E. Coli was measured at 16000 cfu/100 ml, or 40 times the safe limit.
There is a BC Supreme Court lawsuit pending over water quality in Golf Creek.
All of Comox Bay is under an ongoing shellfish harvesting ban.
COUNCIL KEPT IN THE DARK?
The news release also revealed that the mayor and Town Council had not been made aware of the issue until that day, which was 22 days after the leak was discovered and remediation action was taken. Mayor Arnott confirmed that delay in an email to a concerned citizen.
“Myself and council were briefed on this today,” Arnott wrote on Sept. 25 to a Decafnation reader.
Decafnation asked Mayor Arnott Tuesday morning via email whether he was concerned about this lack of communication, and whether the council might pursue disciplinary action.
“The issue is being dealt with internally,” he said.
This article has been updated to correct tonnage from imperial tons to metric tonnes
COMOX TOWN COUNCIL
Russ Arnott, Mayor
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