Regina city council wants better communication around toxic spills and leaks

Poor communication around the discovery of oil in Regina’s wastewater earlier this year has municipal politicians calling for increased transparency and accountability when it comes to toxic spills and leaks.

During a special meeting Monday, city council voted unanimously in favour of a multipart motion put forward by Coun. Andrew Stevens that tasks administration with the design of a strategy for the prompt public reporting of such incidents and the review of the penalties the perpetrators could face.

The goal is a more transparent and accountable system whereby the city notifies the public, and “in particular, downstream users, of a potential hazard not after the fact, but before,” Stevens said during the meeting.

The discussion was driven by an incident on May 22 during which staff at the city’s wastewater treatment plant observed oil in the water.

Read more: Oil spill leaks into Regina sewer system, city and Co-op Refinery don’t alert public: union

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It was discharged by the Co-op Refinery Complex, which has since identified an issue with internal cleaning procedure it undertakes before releasing its wastewater into the city’s system.

The refinery’s communications manager, Andrew Swenson, said Tuesday that the company has been in close contact with the city, making operational adjustments, decommissioning of its problem pond and working to “mitigate against potential future events.”

As a result of the incident, the city diverted 60,000 litres of  wastewater into its lagoons for special treatment.

The remediation effort bill is still climbing upwards of $340,000. Administration told council it works with polluters on cost recovery, and while there is the option of issuing a fine of up to $25,000, to date, one has never been laid.

Read more: Heavy metal used by Co-op refinery detected in Regina wastewater

But Patrick Boyle, the communications director for Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency, said this particular situation, which turned out to be relatively low risk, was unique.

“I don’t think anyone at water security here, some being here for 30, 40 years, have dealt with an issue like this before,” he said Tuesday, noting it was not a typical spill or leak.

Boyle agreed there is room for improvement on communication.

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“It wasn’t something we had experienced before,” he said, adding once the agency understood what had happened and the impact, it ordered action.

The Water Security Agency told the city to notify downstream users about the situation, Boyle said.

Pasqua First Nation Chief Todd Peigan said it concerned him that he didn’t hear from the third-party contractor that runs the city’s wastewater treatment plant until May 29, one week to the day after the fact.

It was frustrating to be looped in so late given that the nation is party to the Pasqua Lake Water Management Agreement, Peigan said, which should give the community a degree of oversight.

In light of how the May 22 incident unfolded, “my view is the province has totally disregarded that agreement,” Peigan said.

Read more: Global warming: University of Regina study shows high toxic algae levels in prairie lakes

Pasqua has experienced deteriorating water quality in the downstream lake that shares its name for years, said the chief.

“The cumulative impacts have caused detrimental impacts to the aquatic life,” Peigan said. “We don’t even eat the fish from Pasqua Lake.”

He said his nation wants to be involved in decision-making  “to work collaboratively… to address issues going forward.”

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Read more: Is Saskatchewan ignoring the potentially deadly gas from oil wells?

Council heard Monday that this was not the first time — or the first time this year — that such an industrial misstep occurred within the city’s bounds.

There was an incident involving Procor Limited earlier this year, Kim Onrait, the executive director of citizen services told municipal politicians, noting the costs associated with remediating the Procor spill have been completely recovered.

Kurtis Doney, the city’s director of water, waste and environment, said in the recent past there have been between zero and two “significant spills” per year. He added that a more specific total can be added to the broader report administration will produce for sometime in early 2021.

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