Dawson out on a limb over sewage

Dawson City is North America's newest wastewater guinea pig. By 2011, the town is set to have a deep-shaft system for its sewage. Waste will be pumped into two 92-metre-deep underground shafts, then broken down using compressed oxygen.

Dawson City is North America’s newest wastewater guinea pig.

By 2011, the town is set to have a deep-shaft system for its sewage. Waste will be pumped into two 92-metre-deep underground shafts, then broken down using compressed oxygen.

Two BC companies, Corix and Noram, got the $25-million contract.

It’s a first for Corix.

The utility infrastructure company has never built a deep-shaft system before.

But Noram has some experience.

The engineering company has built at least two deep-shaft systems since it bought the technology in 1998.

During a technical briefing on Thursday, Noram vice-president Clive Brereton presented a list of 64 “select” deep shaft plants.

Noram was involved with two of them.

Today, neither plant is operating.

The list was intended to show how widespread deep-shaft technology, known as Vertreat – vertical sewage treatment – has become.

But of the 64 deep-shaft plants listed, only four are in Canada.

And of those, only one remains in operation.

In Manitoba, Portage la Prairie’s deep-shaft system was overloaded and failed.

“Our waste load was too much for it, so we decided to go with a more conventional system,” said Portage la Prairie director of operations Kelly Braden in a previous interview with the News.

The Molson brewery in Barrie, Ontario – also using a deep-shaft system – shut down in August 2000.

And in Virden, Manitoba, the town’s deep-shaft system can’t meet Canada’s effluent standards.

It doesn’t even remove the nitrates and phosphates found in dish soaps, its manager of works and utilities, Cornie Peters, said in a previous News interview.

“Our system is definitely not working for us,” he said.

“It is in the process of being replaced.

“We are going to go with more conventional (sewage) treatment.”

That leaves Chevron’s Vancouver oil refinery as the only deep-shaft system listed in Canada that’s still working.

Noram didn’t build it.

Of the 64 systems cited, there were even fewer in the US.

Only three were listed.

In 1998, one was built in King County, Washington.

Noram was listed as the contractor, along with DSTI.

“We ran it about two years and then gave up,” said King County utilities operator Mark Zappalo on Thursday.

“The groundwater didn’t let it get warm enough – it didn’t work.”

King County tries out lots of pilot projects, he added.

“And this was just a pilot project that didn’t pan out.

“Now it’s just a shack with a hole in the ground.”

The second US deep-shaft system was installed for Golden Cheese in Corona, California in 2000. Noram was the contractor.

After a number of calls to Golden Cheese, a woman finally answered the phone with just a “Hello.”

“Is this Golden Cheese?”

“It used to be,” said the woman.

“Now it’s a demolition site.”

The company and its deep-shaft sewage system are gone.

That leaves Homer, Alaska, which has been operating a deep-shaft system since 1991. Noram didn’t build it.

Last year, Homers’ deep-shaft system cost the town $524,000 in operations and maintenance.

That’s up from the previous year, which was $511,000.

Dawson’s operation and maintenance costs are estimated to be $280,000 a year, according to Corix sales and marketing director David Speed.

Homers’ costs have risen because of the chemicals it has needed to add to the sewage to meet effluent standards in Alaska.

Alaska’s effluent standards are lower than Canada’s.

“It’s a balancing act to meet the requirements but not spend too much money on chemicals,” said Homer utility supervisor Jim Hobbs in a previous News interview.

“Homer is one of the older systems,” said Noram’s Brereton.

“And they’re using chemicals for their sludge.”

“We’re not expecting to use chemicals for the sludge in Dawson,” said Public Works project manager Catherine Harwood.

“There might need to be a little bit (of chemicals), but it’s not expected to be considerable – which is good because chemicals do cost a lot of money.”

Dawson’s deep-shaft system is going to cost $10 million more than conventional wastewater systems.

“The drilling costs, of course, are considerable,” said Harwood.

“But the O and M is expected to be lower than a conventional system.”

That’s if the plant keeps its use of chemicals to a minimum.

The failure of deep-shaft systems like Virden’s is not a worry, said Brereton.

“We believe Virden has not been operated as well as it might have been operated recently,” he said. “But it had a very good initial 20 years without problems.”

There are only two deep-shaft systems listed in North America that are operating.

Noram was not involved with either of them.

“There aren’t many in North America, that’s true,” said Brereton.

“But there’s a much larger reference list with quite a few municipal installations around the world.”

The main trouble is marketing, he said.

The company that owned the technology before Noram did most of its work in Asia.

In fact, of the 64 plants cited, 46 of them are in Asia, with the vast majority in Japan.

Noram had nothing to do with any of them.

“They had a fair amount of success in Asia, so they continued to market and develop the business there because it was already there, rather than continuing to develop new markets,” said Brereton.

Also, Noram has been quite good at marketing to the chemical industry, he said. “But I don’t think we were as good as we could have been at marketing to the municipal sector.”

Norma pitched its deep-shaft, Vertreat technology to Santa Paula, California, in 2006.

The town of 30,000 was installing a new wastewater system.

A Santa Paula technical memorandum, dated December 2006, evaluated Noram’s bid and listed some of the city’s concerns.

The Vertreat system cannot meet the discharge requirements for total nitrogen or suspended solids, said the memorandum.

Also, “Vertreat will not meet the requirements for process redundancy and reliability,” it said.

“The Vertreat facilities have corrosion potential.

And they “do not address solids handling.”

Santa Paula turned down Noram’s bid.

“We came in too late,” said Brereton.

“We can’t speak for other jurisdictions and what their concerns are,” said Harwood.

“It may well be some of their concerns are financial.

“This is not an inexpensive solution.”

But it’s an “excellent innovative solution,” she said.

“You can see, by their business list, Noram is more an expert in the industrial chemical side of things and that’s where their research has been, but that doesn’t mean this can’t work for all kinds of wastewater,” added Harwood.

“There are lots of solutions for wastewater in the world, so not every solution is going to be used in every part of the globe.

“And I think it’s fantastic to take something that has all the elements we need and apply it in a new location.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all,” she said.

“We’re quite confident it’s going to work,” said Brereton.

Contact Genesee Keevil at