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Greater Victoria's sewage biosolids to be shipped to Nanaimo as tree fertilizer

The end result of sewage treatment, the biosolids are supposed to go to Lafarge cement kiln in Richmond, but it was out of commission for almost all of 2022, resulting in a space crunch at Hartland landfill.
Class-A biosolids are the product of sewage treatment. HARTLAND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT GROUP

The finished product of sewage treatment produced in the capital region will soon be on its way to the Nanaimo area to fertilize trees and jump-start other vegetation.

Biosolids, the granular remains of sewage treatment, will be spread on the land around the mid-Island region to pump up new vegetation in logging and reforestation sites and for the reclamation of gravel pits and other mine sites.

Land application of the biosolids is something the Capital Regional District vowed it would never do since the early stages of the $775-million wastewater treatment plant.

Incineration of the biosolids — potentially into revenue-generating gases — has always been the end game, but thermal technologies and are still years away.

In a narrow vote after a two-hour debate on Feb. 8, CRD directors decided shipping biosolids to the Regional District of Nanaimo — which had offered to take them — was the only short-term plan on the table.

The CRD’s only current client for sewage biosolids, the massive Lafarge cement kiln in Richmond, was out of commission for almost all of 2022, resulting in a pileup of biosolids that has created a space crunch at Hartland Landfill.

There, a ratio of about four parts sand and one part biosolids is mixed and deposited in the landfill. As Lafarge has undergone maintenance periods and breakdowns — as well as supply-chain issues in getting the cement kiln up and running on a consistent basis — the landfill has been filling up with biosolids faster than anticipated.

Lafarge has told the CRD its plant should start taking biosolids again sometime next month, but the CRD board went ahead and approved sending the biosolids to Nanaimo during a committee of the whole meeting.

The board overrode an earlier 5-4 vote by its own environmental services committee to reject a staff report recommending the Nanaimo plan. It also rejected a motion to table the decision and then had to go to a rarely used “weighted vote,” where larger communities of the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee have added value to their votes.

In the end, it was still tight: The weighted vote was 37-31 in favour of shipping biosolids to Nanaimo. The single-director vote was 8-7 in favour.

There was no immediate indication by CRD staff of when shipments north would begin or where the biosolids would be spread. It will be at least five weeks’ worth of biosolids, or until Lafarge gets it kiln going.

“I find it very hypocritical of us to allow biosolids to be land-applied outside of our region when we are against land application in our own area,” said Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, chair of the CRD’s environmental services committee. “There is significant evidence this practice isn’t without health and safety concerns.”

Director Jeremy Caradonna called the Nanaimo decision “frustrating. “Let’s be honest. How many people around this table would accept biosolids from Alberta or Washington state? Would any of you want biosolids sprayed on the forests around Saanich or Sooke?” asked Caradonna.

“We’re not accepting biosolids from other jurisdictions and we should not be shipping ours to others.”

Under provincial law, the CRD is required to find beneficial uses for biosolids, including use on non-agricultural land as a fertilizer and, in the CRD’s case, use in a cement kiln as an alternative to coal. As it stands, landfilling biosolids isn’t legal, but the province has been giving the CRD a temporary pass as it explores other uses.

However, some directors voiced concerns that continued non-compliance could lead to hefty fines that would ultimately be left to taxpayers.

Glenn Harris, senior manager of environmental protection for the CRD, said 90% of biosolids produced by municipalities in Canada are land-applied. Worldwide, it’s about 70%, he said.

A toxicologist by trade, Harris said when handled and applied properly, the biosolids present minimal risk to human health. Harris said CRD staff will present directors with a new report in mid-March on longer-range plans for biosolids, including three advanced thermal processing (gasification and pyrolysis) pilot projects.

However, bringing any of those plans to fruition could take several years. In the meantime, space at Hartland is a concern, he said.

Hartland can take about 200,000 tonnes of waste a year, but biosolids are eating into the capacity even as the region produces more waste due to increased population and economic activity. The landfill is currently taking 10 tonnes of biosolids a day, but that turns into 47 tonnes with added sand, said Harris.

In 2022, 3,173 tonnes of biosolids were produced at the residual treatment facility at Hartland, but only 470 tonnes were shipped to the Lafarge kiln in Richmond.

Critics of the biosolids at Hartland say even less of the byproduct was shipped to Lafarge the previous year. According to a coalition of businesses, residents and farmers, of the 7,261 tonnes produced in 2021, only 631 tonnes — less than 9% — were shipped to Lafarge.

Hugh Stephens, representing the Society for the Protection of Mount Work Region — a group that includes Butchart Gardens — told the CRD that while some of the contents of biosolids are regulated by the province, many dangerous, carcinogenic compounds found in biosolids are not regulated, including “contaminants of emerging concern, such as PFAs, PCBs and other toxic forever chemicals.”

The group is concerned that biosolids in the limited space available at Hartland will inevitably lead to dispersal via wind or rain erosion, and the pollution of waterways and aquifers with a risk to human health and the environment.

The society is calling for an immediate end to land application of biosolids at Hartland, preferring safe storage instead. It’s also calling for an expansion of water-quality testing beyond the limited peripheral testing done by CRD.

Stephens said the RainCoast Conservation Foundation, which did extensive water testing last year during flooding in the Fraser Valley, has offered to work with the Mount Work group and the CRD to conduct a water-quality testing program.

The CRD staff report said it studied 30 emergency alternatives for biosolids, but found no immediate options other than land applications.

Gary Holman, CRD director for Salt Spring Island, said shipping the biosolids to Nanaimo as a temporary plan is prudent. “I think the banning of biosolids [on non-agricultural] land is the precautionary proposal run amok,” he said. “I personally don’t feel hypocritical supporting the very short-term solution. It’s done in every other regional district in the province.”

CRD chairman Colin Plant agreed. “We are out of compliance with the people who gave us the money to do a project and now we have to deal with the product,” he said. “Anything beyond that is secondary.”

Desjardins and Caradonna voted against the decision, as did Langford Mayor Scott Goodmanson, View Royal Mayor Sid Tobias, Colwood Mayor Doug Kobayashi, Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto and Victoria Coun. Dave Thompson.

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