Province Rethinking Nitrogen Removal

Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre, Water, Worth A Look

The Doer government wants to take a second look at whether removing nitrogen from Winnipeg’s waste water is worth the huge cost.

Conservation Minister Stan Struthers said Wednesday the province wants the Clean Environment Commission to review the matter in light of conflicting scientific opinion on nitrogen removal.

Winnipeg is currently in the process of building a new water treatment plant. Water and sewer bills have risen 50 per cent as result of waste¬water treatment upgrades. (Ken Gigliotti/Winnipeg Free Press Archives)

The government has hired Associated Engineering to give it an estimate of what it would cost to include nitrogen in water treatment.

The move is an about-face for the province, which has steadfastly maintained nitrogen should be removed from waste water along with phosphorus and ammonia.

Premier Gary Doer said it only makes sense to review the science before making a final decision.

“We’re not reversing,” he said. “We’re sending it back to the Clean Environment Commission.”

Tory Opposition Leader Hugh McFadyen said he was surprised the province is only now looking at the true cost of nitrogen removal — something it should have known before.

“I’m frankly astonished they don’t know this at this stage,” he said.

The review comes as many in the scientific community say nitrogen removal is costly and will have little impact on reducing pollution in Lake Winnipeg, where Winnipeg’s waste-water pollution eventually ends up via the Red River.

David Schindler, an ecology professor at the University of Alberta, said there is no point removing nitrogen when phosphorus is the main cause of harmful blue-green algae blooms.

“Even removing all sources of nitrogen does nothing but cause more intense blue-green blooms,” he said Wednesday.

The former Winnipegger said the city would be better off removing phosphorus not only from its waste water, but from other sources in the Lake Winnipeg basin, including in the United States.

“It will take a long time to implement, but will be worth it in the long run,” he said.

The province and Ottawa plan to spend $350 million for waste-water projects across the province, including a $235-million provincial investment for the upgrade of all three water treatment plants in Winnipeg.

Water and sewer bills in Winnipeg have gone up 50 per cent over the past decade as a result of the waste-water upgrade, and are expected to double by the middle of the next decade.