State of the smell: Our Q&A update on the Revelstoke sewage treatment plant

In light of Revelstoke's ongoing development boom, in this Q&A interview we posed key questions about the Revelstoke sewage treatment plant in order to provide an update on city plans for the problematic facility.

The headworks building at the Revelstoke Sewage Treatment Plant. photo: file

This summer and last, the smell from Revelstoke’s sewage treatment plant seems like it hasn’t been as bad as previous years.

Of course, it’s hard to quantify that objectively — short of having monitoring equipment in place, but it’s safe to say it hasn’t been as bad as the gut-churning stench residents endured for months in the summer of 2018, and during some years before that.

One somewhat reliable indicator of the smell is public uproar. When the smell is bad, it’s really bad for hundreds of residents, who pipe up. The community Facebook page dedicated to the issue, Southside Sewer Stink, isn’t filled with the outraged posts it was known for during peak smell episodes in years past. Instead, the page’s focus has shifted to concern over the ongoing development boom, including lots of new hotels, and what that will mean for the aging facility and its neighbours.

Every time a new hotel or development is proposed or approved, there is a chorus of questions from the community about what it will mean for the city’s only sewage treatment facility, which is facing capacity and environmental regulation issues.

Over the past seven years, the city has done work on the plant. A filter was added to the headworks building to mute smells from the sewage arriving at the facility in pipes. A new aeration system — pipes that inject bubbles into the pond to add oxygen, basically — was added to the pond, replacing an existing one that was itself a previous upgrade from over a couple decades ago, which had faced scrutiny over whether it was actually worse than what it replaced. Floating mechanical stirring devices were added to the ponds, in hopes it would churn the water to prevent conditions that lead to anaerobic smells. The pond was desludged, removing byproduct solids that accumulate at the bottom and need to be removed periodically. Staff worked on changing up the various chemicals and bio agents that are added to the pond in order to control the biological reactions that are harnessed to break down the effluent.

The long-term plan has been a new facility. A year ago, the city’s $10 million grant application for sewage treatment plant upgrades was rejected. Read that story here:

With concerns in mind over increased sewage inputs caused by Revelstoke’s ongoing development boom, we contacted the city’s engineering department for an update on what’s happening with the sewage treatment plant.

In our written Q&A interview, we posed a series of questions that we thought would highlight existing issues, provide and update for readers, show city policy approach, and also point out other issues that haven’t yet been highlighted in the public dialogue, such as the fact that a new treatment plant isn’t necessarily a panacea for smell issues in the neighbourhood, and that the timeline for improvements extends into the 2030s.

Here is our written Q&A interview with the city’s engineering department:

Revelstoke Mountaineer: Is the city able to quantify any improvements to odours caused by hydrogen sulfide and other gas emissions, such as through monitoring equipment? Have these remedial steps worked and, if so, can you explain how you quantify that?

City of Revelstoke Engineering: It is difficult to monitor odour objectively. Wastewater treatment upgrades will improve effluent discharge quality by employing technologies that reduce solids and chemicals – levels which will be measured through ongoing sampling of effluent discharge according to permit requirements. An increase in effluent discharge quality should reduce the odours being emitted.

Part of the Phase 1 upgrades will be installing a Moving Bed Bioreactor for complete-mix aerobic treatment. Complete-mix aerobic treatments generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions consisting primarily of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides, than the current lagoon system where there may be localized pockets with insufficient aeration and mixing. A section of the lagoon located towards the rear end of the lagoon will also be partitioned for anoxic (oxygen depleted) conditions and become a green house gas emissions sink by promoting reduction of nitrous oxides to gaseous nitrogen.

RM: The city has a lot of large-scale developments underway and planned for the future. What does this mean for sewage treatment plant capacity and its impacts on residents? 

CORE: Revelstoke’s projected development demand and increased tourism pressure will put the existing Wastewater Treatment Facility (WWTF) over capacity. Phase 1 improvements intend to meet Federal wastewater treatment regulations for Revelstoke’s 2040 projected permanent and seasonal population, which includes an area of Revelstoke that is currently on septic.

The demands placed on the WWTF may also be mitigated through water conservation initiatives which help to reduce the generation of wastewater – such as water meters for new developments – and ensure that there is sufficient treatment capacity available for future development. Water conservation initiatives also have an added benefit to reducing our City’s overall environmental footprint.

RM: What is the city’s plan for the sewage treatment plant? Can you itemize next steps in the process and provide approximate timelines? 

CORE: A feasibility study was completed to determine the best way to increase wastewater treatment capacity and quality, while ensuring that Revelstoke is in compliance with federal, provincial, and environmental standards and best-practices. The result is a plan that was selected to provide the least negative financial and environmental cost with the greatest wastewater treatment capacity and discharge quality improvements. This will be done by upgrading and installing treatment components within the footprint of the existing facility and by using similar technology, staffing levels, and staff experience and certification.

Final upgrade timelines will be dependent on successful grant funding and regulatory requirements and expectations. Due to the high cost of the upgrades, they’ve been divided into 3 phases:

Phase 1 – projected completion in 2023 if the Green Infrastructure Environmental Quality application is successful. A final decision for the grant funding is anticipated in spring 2021. Phase 1 will include the installation of new treatment components and lagoon system upgrades that increase discharge quality to comply with Federal Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations standards and increase treatment capacity for Revelstoke’s 2040 population projections. Phase 1 improvements will take care of the most pressing capacity and quality concerns, so that there is more time to secure funding for additional phased work.

Phase 2 – completion goal is 2026. Phase 2 will further increase treatment level and efficiency, moving the Wastewater Treatment Facility (WWTF) towards Provincial regulatory compliance and meeting Environmental Impact Study recommendations for effluent discharge into a fish bearing river.

Phase 3 – completion goal is 2032. Phase 3 will bring discharge quality into compliance with Provincial Municipal Wastewater Regulations.

RM: From the liquid effluent perspective, what pressures is the city facing from regulators and how does that impact the timeline of city plans to find solutions to the sewage treatment plant issue?

CORE: Like any evolving technology, there is pressure to ensure that one is meeting current regulations and best-practices. Revelstoke is currently treating wastewater in accordance with a discharge permit that was issued in 1973. Because the City is close to exceeding the permit limit, we need to upgrade our Wastewater Treatment Facility to meet federal, provincial, and environmental regulations that are more stringent due to treatment capacity and knowledge increase in the last 40 years.

RM: What is the City of Revelstoke’s plan for communicating with residents on this key issue, especially for hundreds of Southside residents who live in the vicinity of the sewage treatment plant? If a plan currently exists, can you share details of this communication plan and any existing assessments of its effectiveness? 

CORE: Honest and open communication of the project scope, schedule, and expected outcomes, and any changes, will be a priority once funding is available and project startup can be confirmed.

The City is developing an engagement strategy based on our Public Participation Policy. The engagement strategy will likely include a widespread public information campaign, including updates on social media, the City’s website, and through media releases. There may be an open house or (online) public forum where concerned residents can easily ask questions, get answers, and provide feedback to the City.

RM: Is the city considering a second facility?

CORE: Not at this time. Financially it does not make sense to construct a second facility while the existing facility can be upgraded to meet demand and regulatory requirements for a lower cost. A second facility would bring with it some fairly extreme financial and environmental implications such as finding appropriate property, constructing new lift stations, extensive sewer realignments, and additional operating resources.

RM: If the city were to replace the existing aeration pond system with another system, such as a mechanical treatment system, is there evidence that would improve the smell issue for nearby residents, or is the new system also likely to have issues with smell as well?

CORE: A fully mechanical treatment system may reduce odours, but it is unlikely that all odours would be eliminated. Options were identified, and thoroughly analyzed and evaluated to come up with the best and most-sustainable approach to increasing wastewater treatment in Revelstoke, taking into account available funds, potential increases to rates, population projections, and resident concerns.

Our Wastewater Treatment Facility uses natural processes which include living organisms to sustainably treat wastewater. Mechanical equipment is expensive to install and maintain, uses more energy and materials, and requires significant operator oversight, all which come at a cost which is unfortunately significantly more expensive than the existing treatment for Revelstoke.

RM: Does the city have any updates for residents on sewage treatment plant plans?

CORE: In February 2020, the City applied to the second intake of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. The $9,824,753 grant application will be cost shared with the Provincial and Federal governments through the Green Infrastructure Environmental Quality Program. Final decisions are anticipated in spring 2021.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have or call/text him at 250-814-8710.