Daily testing is underway and a full assessment is set to be undertaken in the next week at the sewage plant for JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka Resort and Spa following an order issued by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) against the owners and operators of the resort.
The ministry’s order included eight items of work for the JW Marriott, including an order requiring daily oversight and testing by a licensed operator from Aug. 4 to Oct. 31 along with weekly reports to the MECP. The orders also called for a full assessment and report of the sewage operations from a qualified person with no connection to the design, construction or operation of the Sewage Works. The work orders follow years of noncompliance and a number of sewage spills, according to the MECP, the most recent of which occurred on June 30 and July 1 this year. Raw sewage discharged onto the ground at the Sewage Works and flowed down a steep hill towards Lake Rosseau, resulting in potential exposure to people and their pets swimming or walking in the area, according to the ministry.
“Historically, JW Marriott staff have ignored Provincial Officer(s) repeated requests to provide information and/or take actions necessary regarding the Sewage Works in order to protect human health and the environment,” said the report. “The current operations of the Sewage Works as well as the excessive volumes of sewage that has been overwhelming the treatment system has placed the local environment at risk as well as a risk of possible human health effects due to the potential exposure to raw sewage around the plant.”
The Sewage Works reported several raw sewage spills in July 2015 and December 2017 as well as two events in July 2018 and the most recent spills from Canada Day long weekend this year. The spills from earlier this summer happened when the Sewage Works experienced increased volumes of sewage that overwhelmed the plant, bypassing the system and spilling untreated sewage.
Contractors were hired to remove the excess sewage for off-site disposal. The system experienced two more bypasses into July 1 and contractors were again called to remove the excess sewage. Ministry staff were on site both days and said that several directions required by the ministry were not followed, including a request to tape off half the pond with warning signs about the spill.
The report also said that “raw sewage at times, and partially treated sewage on an on-going basis, is being discharged into the pond and golfers could potentially be exposed to the partial or untreated sewage,” putting their health at risk and exposing them to pathogens, viruses and more.
Bill Morgan, director of finance for the resort, said the suggestion that the spills went anywhere near the lake is false, adding that there was never any danger to guests, staff, animals or the environment.
“There’s no indication that it went anywhere close to the lake,” Morgan said. “What happens is the sewage treatment plant is kind of on the golf course area, which is at least 500 metres from the lake. When it does spill, there’s a pond where it goes into. Between the pond and the sewage treatment plant, there’s a highly vegetative area, it just kind of absorbed in there.”
Morgan described the spills over the Canada Day long weekend as “a one off” and said that the assessment of the plant will help them understand why it happened. He also said that they will take care of any recommendations in the final report to ensure they are fully compliant and remain so in the future. Clearford ASI, which operates the sewage facility, is now providing daily site visits and Tatham Engineering has been retained for the assessment, which should happen in the next week or so, according to Morgan.
Andrew Vitaterna of Clearford ASI told the Globe and Mail that the spills were minor in terms of volume and absorbed into the ground before reaching the lake. Vitaterna also said he was not aware of past issues with compliance.
The Township of Muskoka Lakes has also gotten involved, issuing a joint press release with District of Muskoka on Wednesday to address the environmental concerns that resulted from the spills. District staff met with MECP senior officials and have also arranged a meeting with the parties named on the order to learn more about how it will be addressed.
District staff also reviewed water quality monitoring data in Wallace Bay for the month of July and August to date, which confirmed that there were increased levels of coliform, E.coli and phosphorus following the spills. However, Dr. Charles Gardner, the medical officer of Health Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, has confirmed that “the spill was removed and there were no impacts to recreational, drinking water or land and there were no public health issues to be addressed.”
Councillor Barb Bridgeman described the situation as disturbing at Planning Committee meeting on Aug. 16 and said that the township will keep up to date on what’s happening with the resort and disseminate any relevant information. Bridgeman later added that the Marriott did not provide proper information regarding the sewage system in a recent application for further building, which will be reflected when the resort submits future applications.
Muskoka Lakes Mayor Phil Harding said that three members of senior management at the resort may have been changed following the order and report from Aug. 2, and highlighted the township’s role in ensuring safety and compliance.
“If our public safety is in jeopardy, we will be communicating that,” Harding said at the meeting, adding later that council is working with the district and the ministry to ensure the orders are carried out. “We are inserting ourselves for as much information to provide to the public as possible.”
More information is expected to follow in coming weeks.
To read the Work Order and Report issued by the MECP, click here. To view the council discussion on the issue at the Aug. 16 Planning Committee meeting, visit the township website. For more on the actions of the district and township, read their joint press release here.