Health fears at Lunenburg sewage treatment plant

by Emma Smith

  • <p>EMMA SMITH PHOTO</p><p>CBCL engineer Mark Abbott told Lunenburg council that the status quo is not an option and that a costly upgrade of its ventilation system is needed.</p>

Employees working in the process room of Lunenburg's waste water treatment plant are being exposed to elevated levels of toxic substances.

Operator John Lohnes said it's been an ongoing issue since a new rotary press was installed and that a formal complaint was made over a year ago.

"We have been going through the motions for the last three years saying that this is a problem," he said.

Lohnes spends over 50 per cent of his time in the process room, where higher than normal levels of sulphur dioxide and a bacterial endotoxin were found when the ventilation system was off.

He doesn't know the full impact it's having on his health, but he's "very fatigued and I'm worried about long-term effects of what this is going to cause," he said.

In June, LighthouseNOW reported that town council heard about air quality concerns in the process room. CBCL Ltd. completed a study this summer and presented its findings on October 16.

The tests were done when the ventilation system was off and doors closed. That's the condition operators often work in during the winter months when the system can't be used.

"You definitely have the presence of harmful gases in that area and you definitely have a ventilation system that doesn't meet code," said CBCL engineer Mark Abbott.

He said the normal level of endotoxin, which is found in most biological treatment plants, is 30 to 1. In the Lunenburg processing room, it was about 80 to 1.

Both sulphur dioxide and endotoxin have health effects, Abbott added.

On August 6, the Department of Labour did an inspection of the plant, but obtaining the results of that report requires an application under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Lohnes has had meetings with management, he's spoken with the region's health and safety inspector and says he's seen one colleague quit because of potential health concerns, but the problem has yet to be fixed.

At an October 16 meeting, Lunenburg council agreed to take interim steps to better ventilate the room while they approved, in principle, a motion to upgrade the ventilation system.

"The situation is now and we need to address that now for the benefit of our employees," said Mayor Rachel Bailey.

During the meeting Councillor John McGee asked Lohnes what the actual risks of exposure are.

"I did notice that the safety levels are based on 10 hour days, 40 hour weeks being exposed to it," said McGee. "I don't think you're in there 40 hours a week are you? So I think we're safe."

Lohnes responded that, "You can sit there and say that you're safe, but when I got home at night at 4:30 and I'm asleep by quarter to 5 p.m., I don't know how safe that is because I've been down there all day."

"As a town you have a responsibility to give me a safe atmosphere to be in to do my job," he added.

"No argument there," said McGee, who in the end voted in favour of the motion that included interim measures to improve air quality.

When Lohnes took the job eight years ago, his job description noted exposure to moderate odours.

"Moderate to me means sometimes, not all the time," he said. "So right now, we're getting that all of the time when we're down there. So this is why it kind of raises a flag for me."

Abbott told council that the ventilation system only changes air three to four times an hour. Since the presses were installed, safety standards require air to be flushed out and changed six times an hour. There are also no ducts to spread air around the room, making it, "very difficult to get forced air ventilation down to the operators."

The town installed the presses to de-water sludge, one of the many costly upgrades the plant has received in recent years. McGee called the plant "an endless black hole for money."

Councillor Thom Barclay wanted to know why the $880,000 dewatering equipment was installed in the first place if it made the room unsafe.

"You've got a dewatering system in a closed space with no ventilation problems prior to it being set up and run, and you've got no attempt to upgrade that same broken ventilation system after an $880,000 improvement. How does that get passed, people?" Barclay asked.

Council also received a petition signed by 15 residents from Dufferin and Tupper streets concerned about the smell wafting from the plant. Resident Sandy Marshall told council that "odour has been a problem. It's significantly worse recently."

He's worried the town's choice for upgrading the ventilation system could add to the problem.

The cost of the ventilation upgrade won't be known until a budget is finalized. The project will take about six to seven months to complete.

In the meantime, a standard operating procedure is being developed for employees working in the process room. CBCL is also tasked with testing air quality again when the ventilation system is on.

Lohnes said he's encouraged by council's moves and is hopeful that it means a solution is near.

"We're asking for fresh air to do our jobs" he said. "I know that there's an expense that comes with that ... but at the same time, you have to meet me somewhere."

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