A million litres of sewage poured out of a Behchokǫ̀ sewage lagoon on Sunday morning according to public records.
The spill, reported to the NWT Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ spills database, was independently confirmed by a senior official with knowledge of the incident.
What happened is unclear. The spill report states simply a “breakage” took place. The figure given for the spill is a best-guess estimate provided by the person who filed the report.
Behchokǫ̀ senior administrator Louisa Wedzin and the territorial government did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday evening.
The report was first filed to the spills database late on Monday morning.
A million litres is just under half the volume of an Olympic 50m swimming pool. By comparison, a slightly larger 1.4 million-litre oil spill in North Dakota shut the Keystone XL pipeline for more than a week last fall.
The lagoon in question is the Rae sewage lagoon, to the north of the road leading into the community. The extent to which the road is affected is not confirmed.
One of the two cells holding sewage at the lagoon is understood to have at least partly given way.
Lagoon filings years out of date
Only two months ago, the chair of the Wek’èezhìi Land and Water Board – which has regulatory oversight of Behchokǫ̀’s sewage lagoons – sent a letter warning that the community government had fallen significantly behind in inspections, studies, and planning related to sewage.
The February 2020 letter, which is available on the NWT’s public registry, tells the chief and council important studies of the lagoons due in December 2016 had still not been filed.
Geotechnical inspections of both the Rae and Edzo sewage disposal facilities were last conducted in 2015. Inspections that should have been conducted in 2017 and 2019 were “missing,” the letter from the regulator said.
An updated spill contingency plan requested in late 2014 had not been provided, the 2020 letter continued, and nor had updated hazardous waste management and facility operation and maintenance plans.
“Compliance is fundamental in ensuring the protection of the land and water, which in turn ensures the protection of wildlife and people,” the regulator’s letter, signed by chair Joe Mackenzie, warned.
“Some of the above outstanding requirements provide crucial information on how effective the sewage disposal facilities are in managing and treating waste to prevent contamination of the surrounding environment.
“Board staff have tried emailing and calling the community government office to follow up on the above outstanding issues with limited success.”
Lagoon ‘an area of concern’ in the past
Eleanor Young, the NWT government’s deputy minister of municipal and community affairs (Maca), was copied on the letter, as was deputy minister of environment and natural resources (ENR) Erin Kelly.
Maca provides communities with funding for water and sewer services. ENR holds responsibility for the integrity of the NWT’s environment and conducts inspections of sites like community lagoons.
An ENR water resource officer in 2017 wrote a stern letter to the Behchokǫ̀ community government noting concerns about the Rae lagoon and stating several water licence requirements had not been met.
“This is disappointing due to the fact that we have identified the Rae lagoon as an area of concern in the past,” the officer, Nahum Lee, wrote.
A year later, Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels had acknowledged: “Although we like to focus on fun achievements, like recreation centres and parks, council must also focus on basic services like potable water and sewage treatment.”
How a clean-up of the spill will proceed is not yet apparent. Nor is the impact on sewage operations in the community.
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.
Correction: April 21, 2020 – 17:40 MT. While the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ spills database stated this spill involved raw sewage, the territorial and community governments on Tuesday each stated the sewage in question was in fact partially treated. This report has been updated.