Dawson sewage plant plagued by bugs

Officials are questioning the viability of Dawson City's new wastewater treatment plant after sewage blocked up in the system and flowed out the back door earlier this month.

Officials are questioning the viability of Dawson City’s new wastewater treatment plant after sewage blocked up in the system and flowed out the back door earlier this month.

“The entire process train plugged up with sludge causing a significant amount of wastewater to flood the degritting room and pour out the doors into the adjacent parking lot,” wrote Norm Carlson, superintendent of public works, in his report to council. “This blockage caused the entire sanitary system in Dawson to back up.”

“We’re very thankful for the quick response of our public works team,” said Mayor Wayne Potoroka. “Without them, I shudder to think what sort of catastrophe we would have had on our hands.”

The cause of the blockage is still being investigated.

The plant is currently being operated by Corix under a $25-million contract with the Yukon government. Included in the contract cost was one full year of operations and staffing.

Dawson had agreed to take over operations after that trial year, in August 2013. This period was to allow training of local staff as well as to assess the cost of operations.

But Dawson officials say they still have no idea how much the plant will cost to operate, and proper training has not been completed.

“In my strong opinion, the operations of the plant are not well understood at this time,” wrote Carlson in his report. “Passing most of the water licence parameters with weak winter wastewater does not necessarily mean that the plant is operating as intended or that it will be able to address the increased sewage loading coming with spring. There are many unknowns ahead.”

In keeping with the spirit of the agreement, the Yukon government should pay for a full year of problem-free operations, said Potoroka.

“It’s not a year of optimizing the plant, or working out the bugs or anything like that, but it’s actual operation.”

The mayor is worried that runaway costs could cripple the town’s ability to keep rates low for residents, he said.

“We’re a small town. People pay a lot of money for the luxury of water and sewer in this community. We have to ensure that whatever sewage treatment we have is affordable, because if it’s not then you run the risk of losing ratepayers to communities where there may not be rates as high as the ones in Dawson City.”

The Klondike’s Liberal MLA, Sandy Silver, has also called on Public Works Minister Wade Istchenko to extend government funding for the plant indefinitely.

There have been several issues with the plant’s operations as it is tested in Dawson’s particular climate, said Silver

“It’s a new facility. Nothing like this exists in the Yukon.”

The plant’s operation depends on maintaining a healthy population of bacteria, or “bugs,” to help process the incoming sewage.

“It’s kind of neat,” said Silver. “In the final stage of the facility, you can actually see the bugs.”

But keeping good levels of bacteria in the system has been a challenge, he said.

For one, operations of the plant began later in the summer than planned.

Opening the plant earlier, when Dawson’s population would have been higher, could have helped ensure the quantity of sewage needed to keep the bugs healthy.

Secondly, Dawson operates a bleeder system through the winter. It runs fresh water through the town’s homes and buildings constantly to keep pipes from freezing.

But the result of this is that water coming into the treatment plant is more dilute than it otherwise would be, and this too could affect the bacteria populations.

Until these issues are worked out, the town should not have to shoulder the cost of the facility, said Silver.

He has asked Istchenko to commit to one full year of problem-free operations before the plant is handed over to the town.

“I’m making the suggestion that the city doesn’t get that responsibility thrown upon them yet, until we’ve gone through a complete year with – and pardon the pun – no bugs.”

Silver is hoping for no bugs in the operation of the system, but of course lots of bugs in the system itself, he said.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at