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Explanation found for high E.coli counts at Petrie Island Beach

Jake Rupert, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Tuesday, May 20, 2008

OTTAWA - East-end city councillors are pleased a partial explanation for high E.coli counts at Petrie Island Beach in 2006 has been found, but they are disappointed that it took municipal staff two years to tell tell them about it.

The man-made beach, into which the city has sunk about $4 million, has been the target of ridicule since the summer of 2006, when it was closed for 45 days, the water deemed unsafe for swimming.

On Tuesday, the city's head of water and waste water Dixon Weir came clean on at least part of what plagued the beach that summer.

A large swath of the city's downtown core has combined sanitary and storm sewers. Under normal circumstances, the sewers carry their contents to the city sewage-treatment facility on the Ottawa River in Gloucester. But during heavy rains, the system is overwhelmed and the city pumps storm water and raw sewage into the river through five pipes.

Mr. Weir said one overflow pipe upstream from the beach - near 24 Sussex Drive - got stuck open after a large rainstorm on July 31, 2006 and it continued to dump raw sewage into the river until the problem was detected on Aug. 15.

Mr. Weir said 960,000 cubic metres, or about 350 Olympic-sized swimming pools' worth, of raw sewage and storm water was dumped into the river, and that would explain about one-third of the beach's problems that summer.

"It provides an explanation for 15 or 16 of those days," Mr. Weir said.

He added that after the problem was detected his department immediately notified the provincial environment ministry and has since installed monitoring systems that would catch such a problem immediately. However, he acknowledged this information wasn't passed on to city councillors, even the east-end councillors who were looking to explain what happened at the beach and defend its reputation.

Mr. Weir acknowledged the non-communication as a "shortfall," and said it wouldn't happen again.

Cumberland Councillor Rob Jellett said he was glad to get an explanation for at least some of the high E.coli counts at the beach in 2006, but said he was "very disappointed" it took two years for the problem to come to light. Mr. Jellet said he wants to make sure that if anything like this happens again in any aspect of the city's business, elected leaders will be told.

"We have to find out what prevented this information from being reported to superiors, council and the public," he said. "We have to figure out what stopped this from being reported and make sure it doesn't happen again."

The beach has been controversial since 2003, when city council approved the project despite warnings by scientists that water quality could be a problem.

In 2007, a dry year, the beach was closed for six days due to high E. coli counts. In 2006, the beach was closed to swimmers for 45 days because of E. coli in the water and was open 26 days; in 2005, it was closed for 15 days.

An  Environment Canada study of water quality at the beach last summer found it was most significantly affected by "fecal contamination sources on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River."

Orléans Councillor Bob Monette, whose ward includes the beach, is a big defender of the beach project. He said Petrie Island has taken a lot of criticism and that he hopes concerns of poor water quality are put to bed.

"Today, it's a good news story," he said.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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