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Dawson’s sewage woes go round

DAWSON CITYKlondike MLA Peter Jenkins wants the territorial and federal governments to take another look at Dawson City’s sewage problem.


Klondike MLA Peter Jenkins wants the territorial and federal governments to take another look at Dawson City’s sewage problem.

And it’s time for Premier Dennis Fentie to fight on the town’s behalf, he said.

Jenkins wants the entire case to be re-opened before the courts.

“I’ve written a letter to the premier asking him to go to the courts and sit down with Environment Canada and work out a solution,” said Jenkins.

“To have one level of government fighting with another level of government, and it is the same taxpayers paying for both, is not in anyone’s best interest, especially when there is no harmful effect on the environment.”

Dawson and Ottawa have been at war over the town’s sewage treatment for 25 years.

When Dawson replaced its primary system in 1980, Jenkins negotiated with federal officials over building a costly secondary sewage treatment system.

Dilution was the solution, said Jenkins.

“They were heading towards a secondary solution,” said Jenkins in an interview.

“Dilution is a solution, but it is not a solution the government of Canada likes to see.”

Dawson’s wastewater and sewage is currently collected, diluted and screened before it is released into the Yukon River.

In 1998, former Dawson mayor Glen Everitt received a public hearing in front of the Yukon Water Board to question the Environment department’s water quality testing procedures and to provide the town’s own test results.

Everitt wanted an amendment to the 1996 water licence. That licence was provided on the understanding that Dawson would have a secondary sewage treatment system in place by 2000, when its licence was set to expire.

The town’s tests, performed by Don McLeay of Victoria, blew away the federal test results.

“We hired experts to actually see if these guys were telling the truth and McLeay (and) the medical health officer from the Yukon — they all came up and said it’s not harming,” said Everitt.

“The (federal) tests are flawed.

“They truly felt (Environment) weren’t following how the tests needed to be done.”

Representatives from Northern Development and the department of Environment peppered McLeay with questions to find fault with his evidence at the hearing.

DIAND is responsible for providing water licences in the North, and Environment is responsible for enforcing them.

A week before the hearings, McLeay told reporters, “the available data indicates that the effect of Dawson’s effluent on water quality is minimal.

“After mixing, the amount of effluent is down to one one-thousandth of one per cent. My studies show three per cent is needed to cause harm to the river.”

Former Yukon medical health officer Frank Timmermans performed his own study the following year.

He found that high fecal counts are found during spring run-off in the screening plant because of dog feces that has collected in the streets during the winter.

And, the amount of sewage Dawson puts in the Yukon River in one day is equal to that which is naturally floating past the town every 15 seconds.

The water board requested further tests throughout 1999 after hearing these results.

McLeay was hired to perform the tests and, again, found Dawson’s sewage to be harmless unless fish lived “within meters” of the sewage outlet for four consecutive days.

McLeay used the standard LC50 test that the department of Environment performs.

Here, trout fry are dropped in a pail of sewage water and half must live for 96 hours for the water to be considered safe.

Ottawa always transported Dawson’s wastewater to Vancouver for testing.

And this is unnatural, said Jenkins.

“The LC50 is seriously flawed. You can take potable water from the city and it will fail the LC50 test,” he said.

“It has to do with the dissolved oxygen and the temperature in the water more than anything else.”

McLeay supported this claim in 1998, at the water board hearings, citing that oxygen the fish require to survive the test is depleted while it is being transported.

“Low oxygen levels in the previously tested sample certainly contributed to bio assay failures,” he told the water board.

Environment officials found Dawson’s water to have high levels of surfactants, which come from commercial cleaning products used by tourist businesses.

In November 1999, the test results were released to the public.

The Klondike Sun reported, “The study found convincing evidence that effluent toxicity was caused by these substances.”

However, in the wild they “degrade readily and rapidly.”

That means the naturally high silt levels in the Yukon River, flowing from the White River, help absorb any domestic products the town throws into it.

In 2000, former DIAND minister Robert Nault refused to sign Dawson’s water licence application because he found an expensive secondary sewage treatment plant to be the wrong solution to the town’s situation.

Last week, Everitt recalled his conversation with Nault.

“He didn’t sign the water board licence. It was the first time in history that a federal minister overrode the water board recommendation,” he said. “We brought them the science.

“I came back from the meeting and told (former government leader) Piers McDonald they aren’t going to sign it, we’re not going to have to build.”

This meant that Dawson was not required to treat its sewage, as was mandated by the federal government when its water licence was issued in 1996.

However, the town was also running an illegal water system that was subject to federal scrutiny.

In August 2000, the federal government showed it wasn’t backing down.

The department of Environment performed a surprise test in Dawson’s screening plant, before the sewage was diluted.

It failed.

The town pleaded guilty to violating Section 36(3) of the federal Fisheries Act for depositing a deleterious substance into the Yukon River in March 2003. 

The town was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine by territorial court judge Heino Lilles and to have a sewage treatment plant in place by 2004.

The court case was a way for the department of Environment to save face because of Nault’s decision not to enforce secondary sewage treatment in Dawson through its water licence, said Everitt.

“They were arguing the case with the judge because they didn’t get their way within their own department and Lilles put the order out.”

This was a precedent-setting situation, said Everitt.

“It was being touted across Canada as a disaster if a judge could suddenly put an order on a community when that’s not (legislated),” he said.

“Municipalities across Canada are shitting bricks. Now these federal departments that couldn’t get their way can suddenly use the courts and have precedents set. Victoria should be shitting their pants.”

In July 2003, Dawson was approved for a water licence, the first since 1996, on the condition that the town reports to the water board every six months to let it know what efforts are being made to put secondary sewage treatment in place.

In 2004, Lilles extended Dawson’s timeline to have secondary sewage in place until 2008.

That is when the territorial government took control of the situation and turfed any of the town’s plans to build a secondary sewage treatment plant.

Now, the territory is considering a costly and difficult lagoon system.

The government is going backwards, said Everitt.

“This government switches to lagoons, where are the lagoons? They can’t do them. We already knew lagoons couldn’t happen here.”

The territory is struggling to find a solution, and Jenkins wants the governments to re-evaluate the situation.

He agrees with Everitt and the town’s science: Dawson is not harming the Yukon River with its sewage.

“There is no difference between the fecal coliform count in the Yukon River upstream of Dawson than downstream. In fact, at certain times of the year, there is higher counts upstream than downstream,” he said.

He also said the tests performed by the Environment department — which led to Dawson’s conviction — were flawed.

“When you look at how the test was taken — right in the sewage treatment plant, right in the screening room, there is no opportunity for (dilution) to take place,” he said.

“I would submit there is something wrong with the tests that hasn’t been taken into consideration.”

Getting the surfactants out of the water system, by enforcing the hotels and RV parks to use non-toxic cleaners is the solution, said Everitt.

“It’s an absolute waste of money and time to go down the avenue of ‘we’re going to build’ because it isn’t going to happen. But it isn’t a waste to find a practical, environmentally solution,” he said.

“The town’s goal should be to get the surfactants out of our system.”