Canadian Consulting Engineer

When the public has had enough

April 12, 2016
By Bronwen Parsons

From the March-April print edition, page 4

Worldwide 5.5 million people die every year from air pollution. So said researchers at an international science conference held in Vancouver in February. Over half of these deaths occur in the two countries with the fastest growing economies, India and China. That’s no surprise. We’ve all see the photos of people with masks on their faces struggling through smog-ridden streets. Just a half-century ago manufacturing cities like London and Birmingham in the U.K. were frequently drenched in yellow smog so thick and putrid that you literally could not see a hand in front of your face. With great industrialization, with material affluence, comes great environmental cost.
A less harmful, but still offensive, invasion of the air we breathe is caused by the odours that drift across parts of cities from wastewater treatment plants. Even new plants don’t always manage to control their odours, despite the best promises made about new technologies.
In western Canada, few specific limits on odour emissions from sewage plants have been established (see article by Kim Fries, P.Eng. of CH2M, p. 25). There are costs involved in adding odour control technologies to plants, so governments are weighing economics into their decisions over how stringent they will make their rules.
Wherever there is large scale engineering activity the public is likely to be disturbed. Industrial plants and sewage treatment are just part of the picture. Construction projects are notorious for raising the hackles of neighbouring communities. People complain about drills pounding all hours of the night, dust covering their gardens, lack of access through their streets.
Short term intrusions are one thing. We all benefit from the products of these activities, and if we live in a big city, noise and disruption is part of the equation. But it’s hard not to sympathize with people who can seldom go out of their doors without breathing in the unpleasant odour of sewage. A nearly constant bad odour is such a pervasive intrusion.
In a recent article in a McCarthy Tetrault newsletter “Beware of the Residential Invasion,” Sebastian Thomas argues that with cities increasingly deciding to develop communities on their brownfield sites, the nuisances caused by industrial operations: “mostly noises, odours and traffic” are being overlooked. “For an industrial owner, this may rapidly become a nightmare, both from a public relations and from a regulatory compliance standpoint.”
Controls on greenhouse gas emissions are coming fast with the large provinces imposing carbon taxes and penalties. Environmental controls on nuisance odours and other noxious emissions from industry and sewage treatment plants are also becoming more rigorous. Engineers are on the front lines. They must find the right technologies and equipment to fulfil the requirements and so enable people to breathe clean air and live healthy lives.


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