“We have to go ahead.”

Lambton Shores mayor wants low-pressure sewers before infrastructure funding runs dry

The Lambton Shores sewage treatment plant and Zone 3 sewer network could be the last project mayor Gord Minielly is involved in before he retires. Casey Lessard sat down with the mayor to discuss the projects.

Why is this project necessary now?
We just spent a big chunk of money on our beach, and any day you have a beach closing, it’s a negative for us. The Blue Flag designation will put up with two or three per summer. Our water comes south from Bluewater. If we can get them on sewers along with South Huron and us, we’re not going to be affecting the quality of the water in the Grand Bend area. It makes it safer for our visitors and our residents, and gives us a positive over some other areas in Ontario that are having more pollution days. We were lucky last year and had very few, but if you look a few years ago, we were closed many days. Whether it was our fault or animal runoff, we don’t know. If we can take care of our part, then we’ll know.

Where are you at today?
I’ve asked Maria (Van Bommel, Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP) to set up a meeting with the infrastructure minister for us to firm up whether there’s going to be two-thirds funding for us. When we met with David Caplan, he thought it was a great idea; “Do the plant first and come on back.” We’re going back to see if we can get that two-thirds funding, and if we do, Caplan told us 2014 was the cutoff. I would hope we can get some funding by 2012 and be completed along with Bluewater and South Huron by 2014.
There are effects going on in the water table that are not positive. I know people in Grand Bend are environmentally friendly, so I think we will get this done to the liking of the majority. Right now it doesn’t seem that popular, but the reality is, we are treating that water in a negative way. The lake water and the groundwater levels are the same, so it’s flowing into the lake. If we clean up our act, we can’t be blamed any more when there’s high E. coli; it’s got to be coming from runoff or something else.
One of the main reasons you feel you need to do this now is because of the money, right?
Two-thirds funding is not going to be here long. I suspect based on the deficits the province and Canada are going to have, there won’t be any money past 2014 while they try to clean up their debt. I think now is the most financially possible time to do it. If we can get two-thirds funding, it’s not going to be a burden. If we can spread it over 12-15 years, I think it will be doable for most people.

I was reading in the tri-municipal meeting minutes (where the three municipalities are discussing plans to build a shared treatment plant) that South Huron CAO Roy Hardy had spoken to someone who said there was no money.
I was at the same meeting that Roy was at, and I didn’t hear that. He was talking to people who were nervous about the downturn in the economy, but I have spoken with some of the ministers and as far as I know the stimulus package is going to continue because the economy is still in a trough, and they plan on doing what they planned in the beginning, which is going to 2014 and spending that money. Roy has his opinion about many things, and we don’t often see eye-to-eye, but the fact that we’re on track to get an appointment with the minister tells me they’re willing to talk to us; they must think this is going to continue on.

Is that the stumbling block from South Huron’s perspective? Is it the money or something else?
I have no idea. If you read the Lakeshore Advance, I made the comment that I thought we had a deal. Mayor Oke commented that he thought we had a deal but it wasn’t in the minutes. Mayor Oke didn’t come to the next meeting and it was in the minutes. It’s ready to be signed and we’ve invited them to come to a meeting in a couple of weeks and Bluewater and South Huron will hopefully sign along with us and then move on to the collection system.
That’s the sewage processing plant, which is quite a big project in itself. But that’s a separate project.
We got $15 million of infrastructure funding, and we have to add in another $5-7 million depending on how the tenders come in. But we have additional funding for energy efficiencies like solar panels.

And you do have that money secured?
Yes, we have $17 million of the total cost, so we’re well on our way to having that looked after. When that’s done, we hope to have the collection system ready to go if not in the process already.
Do you think that regardless of whether South Huron comes on board that you will go ahead with it?
We’re definitely going to build the plant. We have the funding, and it’s needed. We have no capacity for development, they have no capacity for development. Certainly Bluewater wants to get in there so they can clean up their beach-front. So for me, we have to go ahead. There’s no debate.

You’ve said changes are “coming down the pike”. What did you mean by that?
I’ve chatted with people from the ministry, and you can see that in Bruce they’re doing mandatory inspections of septics, and if your septic isn’t working, then you’re being forced to upgrade. The upgrades are not typically the normal. A gentleman told me the other day that he paid $18,000 for one that he had to redo. Would you rather do that and have something that will last 15-20 years or a permanent collection system you can depend on?
The question of whether it’s low-pressure or gravity is still being debated. Maybe we can do a combination. I know in Bayfield they have several low pressure tanks operating for the last 10 years with no maintenance. Maybe in the less dense areas we can use those and in the more dense areas, we can use gravity. But it’s twice as expensive, so it’s a debate that hasn’t been completed.

I’ve seen the numbers; will it be twice as much overall or per house?
I think it’s an overall view. Where I live, my sewer is 17’ down. When you excavate that far down, you have to have a much wider hole. In places like Beach o’ Pines, we’d have to excavate the road and probably damage many trees trying to get down so you do have a flow. We have to look long and hard. Doing gravity feed is not environmentally friendly; if you have a greenfield site, it’s not bad, but when you have a woodfield like that, it’s pretty bad for devastation. Then you have to rebuild all those roads and it’s part of the cost. The low-pressure system is less intrusive.

The gravity system construction would also take the roads from having a cottage feel to having new roads like downtown, right?
People like it that way (narrower roads) because it forces people to drive slow. Fix them up and put them in (to standard) and they’ll be like speedways. Walking to the beach will be more scary than it is today. But the fact is it’s much more expensive.

You spoke of development at the meeting. What is the vision for how these communities should look in the future? Should they always have the style of roads they have now or should they be at today’s standards?
Any new development will have 66’ roads with proper sewer lines. Southcott Pines and those subdivisions built them purposely (narrow) because they don’t want visitors coming in and out. Unless their board makes a decision, the roads will be like that until they change. They were designed that way and will stay that way. (But with gravity) there certainly would be a lot of damage. I suspect they would have to be (restored to the new standard).

Of the three options – gravity, low-pressure, and septic tanks – which one makes the most sense to you?
In my opinion, in the areas along the lake, the low-pressure is the least intrusive, the least expensive, and based on what I know about those pumps, should be as good as the gravity feed.
The issue with no power, I don’t know how many of the folks in there have generators, but I suspect it’s a lot. Our power grid around here is not what it used to be, and when you’re out for 24 hours, especially when it’s cold, you either have to move or have some form of heat. Especially along the lake in the gated communities, the low-pressure makes the most sense.
In new developments, the gravity feed makes sense. It makes lots more expensive because the contractor is responsible for that cost. I don’t know if we can do this one way and the other. That’s why it’s hard to answer questions because we don’t have the answers. Hopefully by this time next year, we’ll have a plan in place they can go forward with.

When I look at the numbers of people affected by this, the count I saw was 1500 homes in Lambton Shores that don’t have sewers. How many people are there year round?
I don’t know. In Beach O’ Pines, it’s likely the majority (that aren’t there). That’s changing. If I look down the road 15 years, I see Grand Bend having two-storey buildings all along Main Street with business on the main floor and apartments above.

How important is it to have services like this?
I’ve moved around Ontario and I always tried to find places that had sewers. I’m sure the tiles in Huron Woods are being filled with tree roots. A sealed low-pressure system doesn’t allow roots in, while a gravity feed does.

What is your current feeling about what people think about what you’re proposing?
I’ve been elected one way or another, sometimes in and sometimes out, over the last 30 years. Change doesn’t come easily to the average person. Here in Forest, the fire hall had been let go and we decided to build a new one. People threatened us and we had public meeting where people yelled at us. Carnegie Library wasn’t wheelchair accessible and we built a new library; I lost an election over that because I was the chairman of the committee that put it together. But the reality is that once it’s done, people go on with their lives and say, “Isn’t that a lovely library? What a beautiful fire hall.” People have difficulty with change and if it hurts them in the pocketbook, they have greater difficulty.

What is the actual cost per household expected for the sewer project?
We haven’t figured out the final numbers. I suspect that probably by spring, we should have those numbers down. We have to go to the ministry with firm numbers. I’d like to get them done sooner, but there are some decisions we have to make first. If your septic system is five years old, how long will you be grandfathered? If you grandfather nobody, there’s more people to pay for what you’re doing. If someone put one in yesterday and spent $20,000, it’s hard to ask them to cough up another $12,000-15,000.
The other thing we have to do is, if someone wants to build tomorrow, do they put in something less expensive than a whole septic system?

If the province and federal government do not have the money for this project, will it happen?
I guess I could answer that by saying I won’t be the mayor when that decision is made. Depending on the council of the day, and how much they think this is important, they will make that decision. Personally, I think there’s a 50-50 chance we will get funding. We have a good argument to make: we have a great beach, we’re trying to be as environmentally friendly as we can, and we need their help in getting us there. Tourism has been down in Ontario, but we are a destination and they know that. I have a good feeling we’re going to get some funding. I said that about the plant and it came through, and I hope it carries on. We’ve been very fortunate.

What is the timeline on this decision?
We’re trying to get a meeting for mid-December with Gerry (Phillips, infrastructure minister), and if we get some positive news there, I suspect we’d talk to him at the OGRA (Ontario Good Roads Association) convention in February, give him an update on numbers. The environmental assessment in Bluewater and South Huron, so they should have good numbers by then. I emailed them to say we were arranging this meeting and to ask if they’d be interested in coming. I got an immediate response from Bluewater and I’m still waiting for South Huron because they don’t want to play with us. Hopefully they come around. We’re meeting in Varna again and hopefully they’ll be there and sign the agreement so we can go to Toronto.

When do you think you’ll have something to tell people in the community?
At the latest in May, and at the earliest before we go to Toronto in February. I don’t think we need to have a meeting. We’ll put it out at a council meeting and I’m sure everyone will hear very quickly. Toronto and Ottawa have treated us very well, and other municipalities are jealous of the success we’ve had. I don’t think there will be money after 2014 for a long time.