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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