A decant structure leading to cell two of the Rae sewage lagoon was pictured in a November 2015 inspection report.
Behchokǫ̀’s community government is working out how to pay for repairs to its sewage facility while engineers try to ensure the spill does not damage the community’s access road.
Sunday’s spill involved an estimated one million litres of sewage breaking free of a holding cell 2.5 km east of the community. What happened to cause the spill remains under investigation.
The territorial and community governments say the spill did not involve entirely raw sewage, as was reported to the territory’s spill line. They say the sewage released had been partially treated.
“An estimated two square kilometres were flooded,” the territorial government said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
“The breach has ponded up and is putting physical pressure on the nearby Behchokǫ̀ access road.”
Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels said he was “obviously” worried about the financial implications of the repair work that must now take place.
“We do have a budget and we try to work within that budget,” he told Cabin Radio. “We might have to move some money around to get this done. It has to be done.”
The territory said cleaning up the spill, an “unauthorized release under the community’s water licence,” is entirely the responsibility of the community government.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) said its priority “is to ensure the released effluent is managed in the safest way possible for the protection of the environment and human health.”
“There is no indication that the effluent spill will have an impact on the community drinking-water system,” read a territorial government statement.
“Residents are encouraged not to go near the area where the spill has occurred.”
Problem buried beneath current sewage level
The Rae sewage lagoon has two large holding cells for sewage.
The first, cell one, contains raw sewage. Sewage is held in cell one until solids have settled to the bottom, then the remaining effluent is released into cell two.
“Here it breaks down even further, and is tested to meet water quality standards before being released into the environment,” the territorial government stated.
“The effluent that spilled on Sunday was from the second cell and had already undergone several months of natural treatment. Effluent from the second cell is usually ready for release into the environment by the beginning of June.”
Chief Daniels agreed that the effluent would have been scheduled for release in six to eight weeks’ time.
A rush analysis of effluent samples from the spill is now taking place.
A map of the Rae sewage lagoon shows cell two, the scene of Sunday’s incident, at centre left.
Daniels said engineers and contractors are now working to repair the damage but have not yet been able to identify exactly what caused the spill.
“We don’t know what really happened,” he said. “It seems everything is intact … but somehow it was compromised. The engineers are doing an inspection as I speak.
“We need the level [of sewage in the cell] to go further down to see what failed. We have been reinforcing and rebuilding that barrier, we spent quite a bit of money on that, so we need to find out what failed here.”
ENR said it had given approval for contractors to pump some more effluent away from the cell “to allow the lagoon breach to be visible and make repairs.”
“The effluent will follow the usual path that it does when it is a scheduled release,” the territorial government stated.
Community ‘had been investing’ in lagoons
Behchokǫ̀’s sewage systems were the subject of a letter from the chair of the Wek’èezhìi Land and Water Board in February 2020, warning that a range of filings related to the lagoons were years out of date.
On Tuesday, Daniels contested that characterization.
“They had received some of the reports that they possibly didn’t post,” he said of the board, which had claimed a number of reports and studies were not provided by the community government on time.
Daniels said his government was “working closely” with the regulator “trying to resolve” its concerns.
The territorial government – which has a significant role in ensuring communities comply with water licence requirements like adequate documentation – also insisted the community had been making progress beyond that shown in the February letter.
“Behchokǫ̀ has been making investments in their lagoons and working with the water board and the inspector to remedy their non-compliance issues,” the territory said in a statement.
“ENR and Maca have been working with the community government to improve water licence compliance through education and prevention.”
Ryan Fequet, executive director of the Wek’èezhìi Land and Water Board, declined an interview request, stating the board could not comment on an incident in which it expected to have active involvement.
The February letter had warned missing studies and reports were needed to “provide crucial information on how effective the sewage disposal facilities are in managing and treating waste to prevent contamination of the surrounding environment.”
The letter added: “Board staff have tried emailing and calling the community government office to follow up on the above outstanding issues with limited success.”
What happens next
Daniels said the community’s day-to-day water and sewer operations would not be affected by Sunday’s spill.
“Everything’s carrying on as normal,” he said on Tuesday. “We have everybody dealing with what’s occurred.”
The territorial government said results of effluent sample tests, expected by the end of Tuesday, “will help determine next steps.”
As the problem and its full scale have yet to be identified, no estimate for the cost of repairing the lagoon was immediately available, nor a timeline for that work.