A map of the sewage system, showing pumping stations on either side of the Harbour.

At around 3:30am on Saturday, a man was seen walking on the catwalk under the MacKay Bridge, confirms Sergeant Stephanie Carlisle of the Halifax Regional Police Department.

Security around the bridge has increased in recent years, especially since Holly Bartlett was found mortally wounded under the bridge on the Halifax side of the harbour. Barbed wire has been placed around landfall at both ends of the bridge, which is where the catwalk beneath the bridge is accessed.

Barbed wire has been pulled back from the fence surrounding the catwalk on the Halifax side of the MacKay Bridge. Photo: Tim Bousquet

But there’s access to the area around landfall on the Halifax side — one needs only to walk up the ramp for cars. There’s barbed wire around the catwalk itself, but when I visited the site yesterday, I found that the barbed wire is pulled back in several places, making it somewhat easier for an agile would-be climber to access the catwalk.

On the Dartmouth side of the bridge, the barbed wire provides no barrier to would-be fence climbers. Photo: Tim Bousquet

On the Dartmouth side, it’s even easier to access the catwalk — the barbed wire has been pulled down completely on the side of the fence closest to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency building.

Saturday morning, the man was seen walking on the catwalk from the Halifax side of the bridge towards Dartmouth. Police could not locate him.

But while the man was under the bridge, he threw some breaker switches that are on the catwalk near one of the towers, Bridge Commission spokesperson Alison MacDonald told me yesterday. That resulted in a power outage to some systems on the bridge, including to a Halifax Water repeater on the tower. The repeater allows five sewage pumping stations on the Dartmouth side of the harbour to communicate with the sewage plant in North Woodside.

Those pumping stations are at Jamieson Street, the CN land near Alderney Landing, Dartmouth Cove, Old Ferry Road, and Melva Street in South Woodside.

MacDonald said that bridge staff were called in to address the power outage and that the breaker switches were reactivated at about 7:30am.

A source with knowledge of the situation told me that as a result of the communications breakdown, the Dartmouth sewage plant released raw sewage into the harbour. (The source is granted anonymity because the source is not authorized to speak for any of the four agencies I’ve spoken with for this article.)

Specifically, with the communications system down, the Dartmouth plant automatically closed its inlet gates, stopping all sewage piped from the pumping stations from entering the plant for treatment; instead, the raw sewage was shunted into an overflow pipe that leads to the harbour.

My source wasn’t clear on the cause of the communications breakdown. The source thought it might have been related to a cyber attack, but the source made clear they were speculating about that.

Saturday morning, I called James Campbell, the spokesperson for Halifax Water. I apologized for calling him on the weekend, but said that someone told me there was a possible cyber attack on Halifax Water systems on the MacKay Bridge that resulted in a sewage discharge.

Later in the morning, Campbell called back to say my source was incorrect, and he asked me to identify my source. I declined. Campbell then provided a narrative of what happened: he said that a power outage momentarily took the pumping stations offline but that each station has a backup generator that kicked in as designed. Campbell categorically denied that there was any disruption of the Dartmouth sewage plant or that raw sewage was released into the harbour; according to my notes of our conversation, his exact words were “there was no loss of service at the Dartmouth sewage plant.”

But Campbell’s narrative made no sense to me. How could a single power outage localized on the MacKay Bridge result in five separate power outages many kilometres away at each of the five pumping stations, which are themselves separated from each other by many kilometres?

So yesterday I asked the Department of Environment if there had been any reports of raw sewage discharges over the weekend. Spokesperson Chrissy Matheson quickly responded, saying that there was a discharge of raw sewage over the weekend but the department needed to find out more information from Halifax Water. I asked for whatever details she could provide, and today Matheson emailed to say that “This matter has been reported to NSE and the details will be verified by an Inspector. What we can confirm is that the discharge took place on April 28 from the Dartmouth facility. The quantity is unknown at this time. I understand that it isn’t much more detail than I originally sent, but it’s all we can say at this point.”

The Dartmouth sewage plant.

What are the lessons here?

First, the sewage system is a complex system that can be disrupted by unforeseen circumstances like a random person illegally using the bridge catwalk.

It was another power outage, on January 14, 2009, that led to the complete failure of the Halifax sewage plant. If we learned anything from that failure, it’s that worst-case scenarios have to be planned for and expected.

In the case of this weekend’s power outage, the system “worked” so far as it didn’t lead to the failure of the Dartmouth plant  — but is a design that calls for dumping raw sewage to save the plant enough? Should the repeater on the bridge have a backup power supply?

The second take-away is that Halifax Water spokesperson James Campbell gave a reporter an inaccurate — a completely untrue — response to a query.

This wasn’t just an issue of spinning the narrative or eluding the questions — which would be bad enough. But Campbell took it one step further: he relayed a counter-narrative that was patently not true, with facts that made no sense, and he denied a discharge that I could easily verify from another government agency.

Today, I emailed Campbell and asked him to explain himself. He responded:

You [sic] question to me was did the power failure on the bridge result in the shutdown of the Dartmouth WWTF and release of raw sewage. As I stated to you, the Dartmouth WWTF did not shutdown or loose [sic] power. It continued to operate and treat wastewater.

There were 5 wastewater pumping stations affected by the power interruption. I was incorrect (my mistake) when I stated to you that the pumping stations lost power and were running on generator power. Those pumping stations did not actually loose [sic] power. They continued to operate. The loss of power, due to the bridge power failure, was to a communications system ( I believe your term was “a repeater’) that links the pumping stations. The loss of communications information to the pumping stations resulted in screened overflows into the harbour through those pumping stations, not a raw sewage release. A similar screened overflow would occur via these combined sewer overflow (CSO) locations when flows in excess of 4 x times dry weather flow occur (ie. a heavy rain event).

Let’s be clear: raw sewage was dumped in the harbour. Screening doesn’t change that reality.

As for whether the raw sewage came from the pumping stations or from the sewage plant itself, the Department of Environment says the flow came “from the Dartmouth facility.” My source as well says that the raw sewage dump came because the gates at the sewage plant were closed.

Regardless, whether the sewage was dumped from the pumping stations or at the entry of the sewage plant, I can’t see what relevance there is in the sewage plant being up and running if there was no sewage entering it. And in any case, it’s Campbell’s job to clarify; I asked about a sewage discharge — if I had the exact details of it wrong, he should have clarified, not parsed my question so tightly as to avoid an honest answer.

And yes, raw sewage is dumped in the harbour every time it rains so much that the system is overwhelmed — such that more than four times the amount of sewage and runoff through the sewage system when it’s not raining. And that is by design. It’s not the best design; we could separate the storm and sanitary sewage pipes in the older parts of Halifax and Dartmouth (as they are in the suburbs), but that would cost many billions of dollars.

In the scheme of things, a few hours worth of raw sewage going into the harbour isn’t by itself an environmental disaster. As they say, shit happens. But we should understand the vulnerabilities of the system, and plan to prevent such breakdowns. Each unexpected discharge of raw sewage may be indicative of a larger breakdown in operational processes. Understanding why a relatively minor problem happened may prevent a much larger problem from happening in the future.

There’s also a breakdown in communications, which again is relatively minor — who cares if the lowly Halifax Examiner was misled? — but may be indicative of a larger corporate attitude that could lead to larger problems in the future.

For me, this started as a quirky story about how a weird report of someone on the bridge led to some problems with the sewage system. But now I’m thinking it might be a much more important story about management and communications at Halifax Water.

Update, 5pm: Chrissy Matheson, the spokesperson at the Department of Environment sends the following email:

As a follow up from the info I sent you yesterday, I have to correct an error.

I advised that it was the Dartmouth facility that dispensed the sewage. That was incorrect.

Please see the points of discharge:

it is projected screened overflows occurred at the combined sewer overflow locations noted below:

Ferguson St
King St
Park Ave
Lyle St
Melva

Also, it’s not raw sewage. It is screened. Halifax water can explain the difference. Sorry for the confusion.

I stand by my assertion that there is no appreciable difference between screened sewage and raw sewage. Both are untreated, and both contain feces, piss, and everything else dumped into the sewage system; the “screening” merely catches the largest of the material going through the pipes — tampon applicators and the like.

And again, it was Campbell’s job to clarify, not distort. When I asked him about raw sewage being discharged from the sewage plant, he should have explained that it came from the pumping stations. He left that part out, and instead made up a ridiculous story about power outages at the pumping stations.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Public officials should learn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, especially when it comes to public safety and health. Like why doesn’t the Bridge Commission have security cameras that are monitored at all times so that police and whomever else needs to be notified are when someone is putting their own life at risk and also the well-being of others.
    I’ve been on a rant lately about plastics making their way into our waterways and wilderness areas. I have been trying to get a certain developer and real estate company to clean up plastics in an area where I now live. The other day I was coming home from walking my dog and noticed a Halifax Water employee at a treatment facility. He had one of those disposable plastic water bottles in his hand.
    Nice image, eh?

  2. I’m assuming the breakers aren’t protected in anyway? That seems like the first thing that should be fixed, though there might be concern that staff could not then always flip them off/on quickly enough.

  3. Wait, WTF? A guy can flip a switch under a bridge and make raw sewage flow into the harbour? What kind of magical hillbilly place is this?

  4. It may seem to be a fine point, but people who work in wastewater treatment typically see a difference between raw sewage and sewage that has passed through a screen. Screens take out large items like rags, plastic, condoms. etc. After that is done, it would not be considered raw sewage anymore by people (like me) who have worked in the wastewater treatment industry.

  5. Some perspective might be helpful.

    Sewer collectors in Halifax, as in most old cities, gather both rainwater runoff and sewage in a single set of pipes. While new installations keep the two separate, rebuilding the entire system to separate all existing sewers would be expensive.

    Treatment plants are designed to treat the combined flow, but major rain events overwhelm them. During these events, the huge flows of rainwater dilute the sewage. Building plants big and robust enough to treat all this highly diluted runoff from once-a-year or once-in-five-year rainfall events would also be expensive. On the rare occasions when they might be called upon to work at capacity, these imaginary massive treatment plants would be “treating” mostly rainwater.

    So the system contemplates occasional overflows of dilute sewage that is screened to remove solids. It’s not an ideal system, but it’s practical.

  6. When Halifax Water appeared before the so called HRM Budget Committee ( no such entity exists except this year it was an ad hoc arrangement) the staff talked about heavy rains and rain water running down from higher ground such to Old Ferry Road, overloading the system and being allowed to run directly into the harbour. At the time I took this to imply that at times of heavy rain it is safe to assume that raw sewage would also flow into the harbour. The video of the presentation is available on the HRM website.

  7. Have the drunk that flipped the switch on his way home from the bars empty a few outhouses as community service. Also needs more razor wire coils.