Dawson sewage facility a long way off

So much for deadlines. Dawson could blow its court-ordered deadline to build a sewage treatment system by up to five years, officials warned in a…

So much for deadlines.

Dawson could blow its court-ordered deadline to build a sewage treatment system by up to five years, officials warned in a hearing on Friday.

“In the worst-case scenario, we’re looking at 2013, taking into account all the regulatory processes,” said Dawson’s lawyer Tony Crossman.

“Optimistically, our best guess is for the facility to be constructed and operational in 2011.”

The hearing was called to check Dawson’s progress in building its treatment system.

The town’s raw sewage has been slopping into the salmon-bearing Yukon River for more than 20 years.

The community’s water licence expired in 2000, opening it to charges under the federal Fisheries Act.

Subsequently, Yukon territorial court judge Heino Lilles slapped Dawson with a $5,000 fine, and called for a treatment facility to be built by 2004.

Then that deadline was extended to 2008.

On Friday, Lilles came out of retirement to once again hear about Dawson’s progress — or lack thereof — in meeting his long-standing order.

“You may ask me to abandon this file, but it’s unlikely I will,” he said to laughter.

The completion dates are out of Dawson’s control, as the Yukon Environmental and Socioeconomic Assessment Act and other processes must vet them, said Crossman in his opening submission.

He pushed Lilles to extend the deadline again.

So did Crown lawyer John Cliffe.

In addition to an extension, Cliffe asked Lilles to set a timeline, including benchmarks Dawson must meet when building its sewage treatment facility.

He proposed penalties be levied for missed goals.

“Let’s not paint a rosy picture; they’re just not going to make it,” said Cliffe of Dawson meeting Lilles’ order.

“It’s clear it’s 2010 that we’re talking about here. So make it 2010; here’s your timeline, and there’s consequences if you don’t make the dates.”

Along with benchmarks and penalties, Cliffe proposed daily fines of $1,000 for Dawson if the plant is not online after the proposed 2010 deadline.

But despite Crossman and Cliffe’s agreement the deadline should be extended, Lilles let his order stand.

He told the packed courtroom — filled with several Dawsonites, including mayor John Steins — that he is impressed with the “positive change in attitude” the town’s mayor and council has displayed over the last six months.

Endorsing Cliffe’s proposal for benchmarks and penalties would “send a negative message to the city of Dawson,” he said.

“I don’t want to send that message. I want to send the opposite; they have shown the diligence required of them.”

And progress was evident during Friday’s hearing.

Dawson’s council has secured $6.6-million in federal funding for the sewage facility, which will be matched by the Yukon government, said Crossman.

A request for proposals for the plant’s design has been issued and responses are due this month, he said.

Council has secured property for the facility, he added.

But Dawson’s proposal for the facility troubled Cliffe.

A recent study concluded a single-cell, aerated sewage lagoon can meet Dawson’s sewage needs, argued Crossman.

“The good news is, yes, the report found that this is a viable tool and it would provide compliance with the court order,” he said.

The single-cell option will mean more than $12-million in savings over the proposed mechanical sewage plant, he said

“When you consider that this is a responsibility for Dawson to bear, this makes it more sustainable and affordable,” said Crossman.

But Cliffe wasn’t impressed.

“I’m not here to pooh-pooh this opportunity,” he said to laughter. “I’m here to alert the court with respect to the concerns of the regulator and the Crown.”

Those concerns lie with the shortened retention periods that Dawson is proposing for the facility, and with single-cell technology being used in the North, he said.

 “This choice appears to be driven solely on the basis of reducing financial costs,” said Cliffe. “It’s not going to work.”

Lilles will hear about Dawson’s progress at another hearing in June or July.

But in a warning shot to Dawsonites, he said he would be “very interested” in Cliffe’s proposals for benchmarks, with penalties, if Dawson’s recent progress on the sewage facility wanes in any way.

Keeping the original order will limit any “foot dragging,” and allow the court to go to the penalty phase “sooner rather than later.”

Lawyers proposed holding the next hearing in Dawson, an idea Lilles promised to consider.