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Politicians, actress Ellen Page chime in on Halifax treated waste debate

A debate about poop in Halifax has spewed a controversy that some say has pitted emotion against science and has even drawn Hollywood star Ellen Page into the fray.

The city council has put the use of treated waste, known as biosolids, on hold until the results of an external assessment are in hand, likely sometime next year. But for months, municipal politicians have been mired in a debate that has been polarizing.

Ms. Page, a Halifax native and environmental activist, came under some criticism after she came out strongly against the use of biosolids.

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"I'm always getting that, 'Oh, look at the young actress. She's not a scientist, blah, blah, blah!"' Ms. Page said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

"Of course I'm not a scientist but I'm allowed to have common sense and care about the planet," she said, adding that Halifax is still her primary residence.

Ms. Page, who was nominated for an Oscar Award, says she has no desire to create drama or make anyone look bad but she does have concerns about sewage sludge - even after it is treated.

"It's taking all the waste of our current society with its sickness and toxicity. That's what they're treating in a very short amount of time and what they are saying is safe and, quite frankly, I don't believe it."

Rob Sampson, president of N-Viro, the company taking the sludge from the city's sewage treatment plants and processing it into usable compost, said he wishes people would tone down the rhetoric and examine the facts.

"You've got to consider that this isn't coming right out of the toilet and into the field. It's being treated at the sewage plant and our plant," he said of their operation in an industrial park near the Halifax airport.

The company uses alkaline waste products from coal-fired power plants and the cement and lime industries to stabilize organic waste through pasteurization and disinfection.

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"We need to make decisions based on science and not hysteria," said Mr. Sampson, referring to the local buzz Ms. Page generated when she visited a site where city crews had applied biosolids this past summer.

"It's probably the most regulated and the most watched land application of any material including commercial fertilizer."

Mr. Sampson said even some of the more complex materials that may get into the sewage deteriorate over time and don't get into the plants.

He argued that N-Viro's process creates a product that is safe because it must follow stricter regulations than animal manure.

Halifax brought in N-Viro a few years ago, as part of its $300-million harbour cleanup project, to operate the plant that converts the sludge to compost.

Several cities in North America including Houston, Milwaukee, Toronto and Calgary are turning their waste into biosolids. Calgary's entire production, roughly 15.5 million kilograms this year, will be used to replenish natural nutrients and condition the soil on roughly 1,900 hectares of local farmland.

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Halifax councillors Dawn Sloane, who represents a district near the downtown area, and Steve Streatch, whose ward is rural, find themselves on opposite sides of the debate.

"We don't know what's in that last final piece of the puzzle that's being treated," said Ms. Sloane. "If we're not 100 per cent sure that this is not going to affect our agriculture, perhaps we should be looking at alternatives, like in Sweden where they convert it into fuel."

But Mr. Streatch, whose family has farmed for seven generations, said opponents of biosolids can't have it both ways.

"What do they want in the end? Do they want us to go back and let it run into the harbour? There's only so many options, unless people stop going to the washroom," he said.

"It is a refined, proven, scientific product and I feel we are on the right track."

A recent report by the Soil Association in the United Kingdom said that treated human excrement could have a key role in securing future food security by providing a new source for phosphorus inputs.

The association estimates that only 10 per cent of the three million metric tons of phosphorus excreted by the global human population each year are returned to the soil.

It says the supply of phosphorus from mined phosphate rock will become increasingly scarce and expensive in a couple of decades. The authors of its report also say heavy metal levels have declined in recent years and are now low enough for the organic movement to reconsider the use of treated sewage sludge.

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