Brooklyn Creek below the Noel Avenue culverts — as it looked after the sewage spill clean-up | George Le Masurier photo
THE WEEK: 5 things wrong with how Comox tried to hide sewage spill information
There’s something fishy going on in the Town of Comox.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: Two pieces of the town’s infrastructure failed and some undetermined amount of raw sewage spilled into Brooklyn Creek for some undetermined length of time. Then, on the afternoon of Sept. 3 (a long Labor Day weekend) the town marshaled an “army” of workers and heavy equipment to dredge out tonnes of accumulated muddy silt and vegetation immediately below the Noel Avenue culverts.
When Decafnation discovered the spill — thanks to several alert readers — we published a commentary on Friday, Sept. 24 asking why the town, including the mayor and councillors, hadn’t informed the public of such a concerning situation.
The very next day, Saturday, Sept. 25, the town — which up to this time had not even publicly acknowledged the sewage spill — issued a news release that implied the incident was no big deal, just a “small leak” that was found and all fixed up in the same day.
And, oh, by the way, said the news release, the mayor and council never knew anything about any of this.
FIVE THINGS WRONG
First, as you will see, the facts are that the town did not “discover” raw sewage in the creek. They were told about it.
Second, there is no such thing as a “small leak” of raw sewage into public waterways. It’s always a big deal.
Third, when lumps of human excrement and toilet paper float down a creek, there are obvious public health risks. Dogs regularly drink from the creek. Children have been known to play there. To say otherwise — and the town is not qualified to make such an assessment — is misinformation.
Fourth, the town clearly hoped to hide the sewage leak from the public. When it could not hide it any longer, their communications were so confusing that it couldn’t even get it right about the amount of contaminated soil removed from the creek during the clean-up operations.
And, finally, this is accumulated soil that Brook Place condo residents had complained about to the town starting in February and were told not to worry — including by a letter from Mayor Russ Arnott just a week before that same soil turned out to be, in fact, a problem.
It’s hard to know where to start unpacking all of this. But let’s just start by setting a few facts straight.
THE TOWN DID NOT DISCOVER THE PROBLEM
We don’t know who wrote this news release, but we can assume that at least the mayor was involved along with CAO Jordan Wall and most likely the town’s Communications Coordinator Lara Greasley. Public Works Engineer Shelley Ashfield may have also contributed.
The release starts off, “On September 3, Town Staff discovered a small sanitary leak ….”
But the town actually knew about the sewage leak a day earlier on Sept. 2 when staff members of Current Environmental, who were doing field work as part of an independent fish habitat study in partnership with DFO, the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the provincial government observed raw sewage solids and low dissolved oxygen levels in the creek below Noel Avenue. They reported their observations to DFO, PEP and the Town of Comox.
Rupert Wong, a principal of Current Environmental, then gave the town technical advice about how to proceed with source control, spill clean up and remediation, which began on Sept. 3
Town staff didn’t “discover” that sewage was spilling into the creek, but they did subsequently find the source of the leak.
HOW MUCH SOIL WAS REMOVED?
The news release didn’t say that a major amount of sewage-contaminated mud and plant growth was removed from below the Noel Avenue culverts, but CAO Jordan Wall said in a follow-up email to Decafnation that 38 cubic meters were taken out.
But Brook Place residents say they witnessed 15 dump truck loads being removed, which they estimated at 180 tonnes.
So Decafnation asked Wong to clarify the number. Wong told us that his staff’s timesheets show that on Sept. 3 vacuum trucks removed 73 cubic meters and excavators dug out a further 38 cubic meters, or 111 cubic meters in total. Depending on the density of each load, that converts to more or less 200 tonnes of material. The timesheets also show that an additional 18 cubic meters was removed on Sept. 7.
NO PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERN?
The town’s new release says the creek’s “water was tested and no health risks to the public were identified.” This is misleading.
The water was tested, but only after the clean-up was completed when, if the crews had done their job well, the test should have shown acceptable water quality. There was no test before the clean-up.
Certainly, the public was at some level of risk during the undetermined time that raw sewage was leaking into the creek.
It’s possible that the cracks in sewage and stormwater pipes that transferred sewage into Brooklyn Creek did not suddenly bust wide open. It’s likely that they started as small cracks, perhaps just allowing a trickle to leak downstream, and that over time the cracks grew larger and larger until on or before Sept. 2, whole lumps of human excrement and toilet paper were seen floating in the creek.
When did fecal coliform levels reach the point where a public health risk existed? No one can say for sure. But the town was in no position to say on Sept. 25 that no public health risk ever occurred.
And it appears that our local health authorities were not informed about the sewage spill, although that’s not necessarily unusual, according to Wong.
“When we report spills to PEP, it is like a triage center that processes, evaluates and refers the incident to other agencies,” he told Decafnation via email. “We do not know what other agencies PEP would have referred. In our experience, the health authority will be part of the referral list if there are potentially affected water licenses.”
Wong says that preliminary bacteriological lab results showed the cleanup was effective in bringing fecal coliform levels down, but that the final lab results are not yet in. They are still waiting on lab results for other water quality parameters that will hopefully help delineate non-human fecal coliform sources.
The Town of Comox does not regularly test waters in Brooklyn Creek or any of its waterways despite being advised to do so in several past consulting engineer’s recommendations.
WHO KNEW WHAT, WHEN?
The basis of this matter is that a raw sewage leak into Brooklyn Creek was discovered and has been fixed. Stuff happens.
But the most disturbing aspect of this story is that the Town of Comox tried to hide this information from the public and, it appears, also from our elected mayor and councillors.
The public should have been informed right away.
But what about the mayor and councillors? What did they know and when did they know it?
It’s hard to believe that the town’s CAO didn’t at least inform Mayor Arnott on Sept. 2 or 3. But let’s assume the news release is accurate. The mayor and council didn’t know. In the corporate world, not reporting up about something this serious that has high negative public relations potential would trigger major consequences.
So what have the mayor and council done to ally public concerns or clarify information since the sewage spill became public? So far, it appears they’ve done nothing beyond writing a news release.
There was no public discussion of the matter last night at the council’s first regular meeting since Sept. 25. There was a special council meeting called for Sept. 22 where they might have discussed it, but that meeting was held entirely in-camera.
And from what we’ve seen on social media, councillors have only referred people to the town’s news release. Publicly speaking, no council member has expressed outrage. No council member has shared their thoughts about how to prevent such a spill from happening again or how to catch it sooner. No call has been made for regular water testing.
No councillor has expressed concern about what effect such a sewage spill might have on fish in the creek.
The Town Council apparently feels that issuing a news release is all the information Comox residents deserve or need to know from their elected officials.
CITIZEN CONCERNS IGNORED
And, finally, the residents of Brook Place, the condominium buildings adjacent to the Noel Avenue culverts, have a justifiable complaint with the mayor and town councillors.
Over the past nine months, the Brook Place strata council has complained more than once about the accumulation of silt below the culverts installed in 2019. They feared the build-up of stinky mud and extraordinary plant growth might pose a threat to their buildings.
The town administration, the mayor and council ignored these concerns.
A week before the town dispatched employees and heavy equipment to remove that stinky, contaminated soil and vegetation, Mayor Arnott wrote the Brook Place residents to say that he had concluded there was no problem with the culverts and offered to take no action to help.
But anyone looking at the photographs of the section of Brooklyn Creek below the culverts prior to and after Sept. 3 can see that something unusual was happening. It should have been more thoroughly investigated.
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November 14, 2021
British Columbia Public Health Act
Part 2, Division 2 — Regulating Activities that May Cause Health Hazards
Duties of operators
18 (1) An operator who engages in a regulated activity must take reasonable care to
(a) prevent health hazards from arising in the course of the regulated activity, and
(b) respond to health hazards that arise, including mitigating harmful effects of the health hazard.
Part 2, Division 3 — Reporting Disease, Health Hazards and Other Matters
Mandatory reporting of health hazards
11 If a prescribed person becomes aware that a prescribed health hazard exists or may exist, the person must promptly report the following information, to the extent of his or her knowledge, to a prescribed person:
(a) the nature of the health hazard, including its location and cause or source;
(b) the identity of persons involved in causing or responding to the health hazard;
(c) the persons who may be adversely affected by the health hazard;
(d) prescribed information;
(e) any other relevant information requested by the person to whom the report is made.
Part 2, Division 6 — Local Governments
Role of local government
83 (1) A local government must do all of the following:
(a) if the local government becomes aware of a health hazard or health impediment within its jurisdiction, take an action required by a regulation made under section 120 (1) (a) [regulations respecting local governments], or, if no regulation applies, either
(i) report the health hazard or health impediment to a health officer, or
(ii) take an action the local government has authority to take under this or another enactment to respond to the health hazard or health impediment;
Part 8, Division 2 — Offences
99 (1) A person who contravenes any of the following provisions commits an offence:
(d) sections 10 to 13 [failure to make reports, make records, take samples or do other required things; failure to perform diagnostic examinations];
(e) section 14 (3) [failure to provide information];
Let’s be honest here… this is the same crew who were in charge of the golf creek issue where obviously the same thing was happening. Though they have never publicly admitted it I’d wager that they had a leaking sewer pipe there too.
“Democracy dies in darkness” is the tag line of the Washington Post. What is true at the international, national and provincial levels of government is also true at the local level.
The BC K-12 Civic Studies curriculum identifies four pillars of civic responsibility: Informed Citizenship, Critical Thinking, Civic Deliberation, and Civic Action. It is our civic responsibility to stay informed of the issues in our community and to hold our local government accountable for their actions. That requires transparency on the part of the administration and council. It also requires quality journalism.
The story above makes it clear that we cannot rely on local government administrations or elected officials to hold themselves accountable. We also cannot rely on the traditional “news” media, which are focused on their financial survival. They do not have the resources to pay journalists to perform investigative reporting. They may also be fearful of the financial repercussions of reporting stories that are not politically favourable.
All of us appreciate the enormous contribution that George Le Masurier makes to our local democracy. But, it is unfair of us to expect George to continue spending his retirement years voluntarily contributing his time to keep our community informed and to hold local government accountable. That is a burden we all must share!
If each of us was willing to contribute just $10 per month to support Decafnation, it might be enough for George to recruit an apprentice (1000 subscribers would generate $10,000/month).
Let me be clear, I did not discuss this appeal with George, nor do I have his blessing to make it. I am doing it because it is my civic responsibility to ensure the continuation of quality journalism in the Comox Valley for the sake of our democracy.
Let me know if you agree.
Great piece – Thanks very much for staying on this.
I do have one issue that I think is overlooked, especially given that such big parts of this story are transparency, communication, whether the Town of Comox (“ToC”) was attempting to hide information and how ToC staff may interact with council. Accordingly, I don’t think this is “nitpicking” as some will say, but rather gives your comments additional weight.
As you detail, on Friday, September 24th Decafnation “broke” the spillage story. It appears this may have caused the ToC to acknowledge the issue publicly the next day, Saturday the 25th, by distributing a news release. Except, the ToC did not issue a news release about the spill on the 25th. As at the 25th, the release does not appear on any news distribution service I can find. Nor does it appear on the ToC website or its Facebook page. We know these things because distribution of news releases and Facebook postings are timestamped.
They certainly drafted a release, dated it Friday, September 25th and marked it “For Immediate Release”. However, it doesn’t appear on any news distribution service until the afternoon of Monday the 27th, when it is also posted on the ToC Facebook page and website, as well as being detailed on local radio.
After you made the issue public and asked questions on the 24th, the mayor posted the release to his Facebook page on Sunday the 26th. There, a grand total of five people have since given it a “thumbs up” and one party has shared it. That’s not what I would call immediate release or broad distribution.
On Monday morning the 27th, I posted a link to your Decafnation piece on the Comox Valley Rants and Raves Facebook page and people started making comments. About an hour later another party tagged councillor Steff McGowan as to my post and she posted the release to the Rants and Raves Facebook page late Monday afternoon.
Although arguing over the news release date of the 25th or 27th may seem esoteric, to me it further bolsters your reporting and indicates a few possibilities: Someone was trying to limit the distribution of information, the ToC only widely distributed the information after it became apparent silence was not possible and or, there is a problem between how council and staff interact and how directives are carried out.
Once again, many thanks for your work. It is appreciated…Just not by certain parties!
George you’re on your way to TOWN Council’ The only way for them to keep you silent is get YOU to be part of the problem. I hope you refuse and keep on doing a excellent job. This is been done here many time over the years. Hyde everything and hope for the best some time it just don’t work. I try many time to inform the public with the local Rag letter to the editor. I was inform that my letters have to go to the head office of Black Press to be approved before it make the paper Control Control small paper big paper all the concern is to keep the public QUEIT . Just like kovid 19 they give half of the info and half of that is lies. I wish I was as smart as you to expose that assholery that hurt people that are to busy trying to survive to see all this. Good people put to much TRUST in SHYSTERS simple. Thank again and again George
You do an amazing job on reporting. Comox council has inherited the Mack Laign disaster, so no wonder they may be slow to react.
Whenever, I visit Goose Spit Park, I think of Russ Arnott on the loudspeaker urging the 1000 folks who showed up, to save Goose Spit from the landowners above who wanted to Chain It off.
So I think Russ is A very good guy. No doubt he is guided by lawyers,who seem to guide public responses to every controversy. Honesty is the best policy, but not for those who profit from controversy.
Well, we lived in Comox for sixteen years on Rodello Avenue, but moved to Cumberland in 2002 on a large piece of property for better gardening opportunities.
This issue with Brooklyn Creek is very concerning. I know some members of Council (casually) and I can’t believe that they would deliberately hide or obscure information of the sort you report here. If I learned that that was happening, I would be very surprised and disappointed. All I can think is that in the Sept 22nd meeting they were faced with a gag order. Probably not, but their silence will inevitably lead to idle speculation.
Council needs to clear the air. The staff needs to step aside and let Council do its job. And Council needs the courage to do its job.
Lie, lie, deny and lie some more is the standard tactic by city/town/municipal councils the world over. Good job again George.