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City approves $10M to finish Port Alberni’s wastewater treatment plant

Money won’t come from taxation, but will affect sewer user fees, says city CAO
Tugboats float the outfall for the City of Port Alberni’s wastewater treatment plant out into Alberni Harbour. (CITY OF PORT ALBERNI PHOTO)

The City of Port Alberni is in the home stretch for its wastewater treatment plant. All it needs to cross the finish line is another $10 million.

Councillors agreed on Monday to take $4.3 million from the city’s sewer infrastructure reserve fund and borrow another $5.68 million to make up the difference.

The city started in 2018 to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant to meet new federal and provincial treatment standards. The project is about 70 percent complete, city CAO Tim Pley said. The total project cost has risen to $37.9 million, which is $6.3 million more than estimated in 2018.

The request for extra funding won’t affect this year’s tax rate, Pley explained, but it will likely affect sewer user fees.

“It is common with construction projects, particularly ones of this scale, that estimated costs vary from actual costs,” said Wilf Taekema, city director of engineering and public works.

“In this instance, there are several factors to account for. The market fluctuates day to day, year to year and with the long construction timeline, tender prices (actual costs) came in higher than the original estimates which were based on the market at that time,” he said.

“Additional consultation work was required to gain regulatory approvals and permitting; construction engineering of project components was ongoing, including redesign of one major component in 2019; the construction timeline was extended to accommodate certain activities and environmental considerations; unforeseen circumstances have given rise to change orders; and the estimated cost to decommission the City’s old lagoon has increased.”

While Taekema explained why some costs have increased since 2018, others have inflated by large amounts. The cost for upgrading effluent pumping in the new lagoon, for example, is 178 percent higher than estimated in 2018. The pump platform contract was originally $1.3 million, but the actual cost has come in at $3.29 million.

Decommissioning the current lagoon and upgrading the pump station totals approximately $1.4 million so far, which is 103 percent higher than estimated. Engineering costs are also 87 percent higher than estimated in 2018: $3.6 million compared to $1.9 million originally.

In 2012 the city received $11.2 million in grant funding from the Federal Gas Tax Agreement General Strategic Priorities Fund (GSPF) and a further $6.89 million from the Federal Clean Water and Wastewater Fund (CWWF) in 2017. Together these grants provided $18.10 million to support the essential upgrades – that works out to 48 per cent of the projected total cost.

The city purchased Catalyst’s lagoons several years ago when the paper mill considered them redundant. The land acquisition meant the city could upgrade the lagoons at a lower cost than if it had built a new treatment plant, Pley said.

Some of the initial plans have changed since 2018, he added. For example, the effluent pumps were initially going to be floating pumps but were found to be cost prohibitive, so pumping platforms were chosen. The Wallace Street pumphouse was going to be upgraded, but that isn’t necessary right now.

The city hadn’t initially costed out decommissioning of the old lagoon in 2018 either.

“Engineering costs have gone up in part because regulatory bodies are scrutinizing the project and asking for more information and proof,” Pley said.

He stressed that the request for funding the remainder of the project is not unexpected, even if some of the costs have gone up in the past two years.

Pley did not know how sewer user fees would be affected once this request passed. “We are working with a consultant to determine the effect,” he said.

Work on the wastewater treatment plant broke ground in October 2019 and is slated for completion in summer 2020. The project includes constructing a new aeration system, adding the screening of solids and ultraviolet light disinfection to the treatment process, constructing a new outfall 800 metres into Alberni Harbour and improving effluent dispersal with the addition of five sub-surface diffusers.

The city is upgrading the wastewater treatment plant at the same time it is separating storm and wastewater sources in underground pipes.

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The City of Port Alberni purchased Catalyst Paper’s lagoons when they were no longer needed, in anticipation of expanding wastewater treatment to the city’s existing lagoon (seen on the right of the photo). (CITY OF PORT ALBERNI PHOTO)

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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