Halifax finally has a clean harbour—why risk it?

If you’re new to the city, it’s hard to understand how bad Halifax Harbour used to be. On a warm August day, the smell was a pungent slap of burnt oatmeal with hints of outhouse on fire.
One summer I bused tables at a waterfront restaurant. Daily, I watched green-faced tourists get off tour boats, barely suppressing their retches. They’d sit on the patio and make comments like “I think there’s a dead animal around here…” Management forbade us to tell them the smell came from the raw sewage pouring into the harbour. “Hmm. I don’t smell a thing. Would you like dessert?” I’d say, as I mentally calculated my diminishing tip.
It was bad. And it wasn’t just an unpleasant odour. Halifax Harbour was an environmental blight.
After generations of delays and failures, we finally began fixing it, though. The Halifax Harbour Solutions project kicked off in 2000, leading to the construction of three sewage-treatment plants. By 2008, municipal beaches at Point Pleasant Park and the Dingle that had been closed for 30 years re-opened. Then-mayor Peter Kelly took a much-publicized swim in the Northwest Arm to promote the harbour’s decontamination.
And now, Halifax Water has decided to celebrate that success by turning off its ultra-violet disinfection system from November 1 to March 31. The rationale is that in cold weather, bacteria counts are lower, and Halifax Water can save on power costs and wear and tear on the UV system by taking that break each year. (And despite pointing to lower bacteria counts in colder weather, Halifax Water says it would activate the system before the New Year’s Day polar-bear swim … So draw your own conclusions.)
In response to a lot of public opposition, Halifax Water is now trying a two-month trial period of going without the UV disinfection, scheduled to end on April 30. As I write this in mid-March, it’s too soon to say how the experiment is working.
But in a March 3 interview with CBC, Dalhousie University assistant professor Dr. Haibo Niu (co-author of Prediction of Fecal Coliform Concentrations from Wastewater Discharges in Halifax Harbour) warned that the move would likely affect bi-valve shellfish (like mussels and clams), which are harvested recreationally in Eastern Passage.
“I personally think the money savings is one thing,” Niu told CBC. “I think we must be very careful before we take this approach because of the potential risks here.”
Before this discussion, no one seemed to feel year-round disinfection was optional, so I’m skeptical of the whole scheme. When Halifax got this harbour-treatment system, after years of extra fees and broken promises, we were never told it wouldn’t run year-round.
So maybe this a crazy idea, flying in the face of the we-must-save-money philosophy that poisons so much policy debate, but how about just giving people the system they were promised, the system they paid for, and ensuring our harbour is clean and safe year-round?
In our cover story on page 18, we mark Earth Day with a special report by Jennifer Taplin, exploring how we protect Halifax’s green spaces. And accompanying that on page 22, we’re pleased to present a unique essay by Lois Legge, taking readers on a tour of one of Halifax’s most unique green spaces: the Cole Harbour Salt Marsh Trail. With her trademark beautiful prose and some remarkable photos, Lois shares why she loves that trail. This is the first in a series of such essays by her. Look for the next this summer in Halifax Magazine.
Due to a fact-checking error, the version of the story “Life behind the welfare wall” (March 2016) misstated the number Nova Scotians on the Employment Support and Income Assistance program. In fact, 40,000 Nova Scotians rely on the program. To see the corrected story, visit halifaxmag.com/cover/my-life-behind-the-welfare-wall. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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