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Smelly Cities

Posted on June 19, 2009
This week, Halifax municipal officials had to install carbon filters and large deodorant blocks to deal with the stench of sewer gas.

This week, Halifax municipal officials had to install carbon filters and large deodorant blocks to deal with the stench of sewer gas.

Poor Halifax. Since its brand-new, $54-million sewage treatment plant failed on January 14, about 82 million litres of raw sewage per day has flowed directly into Halifax harbour—and, along with the much-publicized “floatables” problem, the smell of sewer gas is growing worse.

The smell is so terrible, in fact, that this week municipal officials were forced to install carbon filters and large deodorant blocks to deal with the stench.

The problem may even affect tourism. CBC Nova Scotia has started a discussion about whether the sewage leaks will prevent people from attending this year’s Tall Ships Festival.

Smelly cities are nothing new. In Toronto, which is relatively rank-free, you can still detect the odd bouquet rising from below. Our underground sewer infrastructure makes easy for us to forget that there’s a whole system devoted to keeping our water clean, potable and disease-free.

Effective sewage treatment is relatively new. The first sewers of ancient Rome (including the Cloaca Maxima, which deposited effluent into the Tiber River) were constructed around 600 B.C., but modern sewers came as a result of population growth and worries about public health (read about the history of waterborne diseases in our upcoming July/August issue) in the 19th century. Initially, these systems didn’t treat wastewater, but as surface water pollution became an issue, cities began to treat their sewage.

By the early twentieth century, Susan Beeder notes her paper, From Sewage Farms to Septic Tanks: Trials and Tribulations in Sydney, “sewage treatment had become the expert domain of an engineering profession which had reached a consensus about treatment methods.”

Since 10,000 B.C. nomadic tribes solved their stinky situations by picking up and moving, technology has come a long way. Despite these advances, however, sewage treatment remains a problem for many cities, especially those in developing countries. Underfunded infrastructure, extreme climates, rampant poverty and overpopulation (or, conversely, low population) are variables that can make it difficult to treat wastewater on a municipal level.

Water-short Israel, on the other hand, has implemented ways to not only treat, but also reuse sewer water. In 2008, agriculture in Israel consumed 500 million cubic metres of potable water and an equal amount of treated sewer water. According to the New York Times, the country plans to provide a further 200 million cubic metres of recycled sewer water and build more desalination plants to supply even more water. (Watch for more about Israel’s water technologies in our September/October issue.)

Halifax officials are saying that it may take up to a year before the city’s sewage treatment plant is working properly again. Back in April, CBC reported that municipal officials said a thorough cleanup is underway and some auxiliary systems are partly operational again. Hopefully for Halifax, it’s sooner, because there’s nothing worse than an embarrassing odour—except perhaps contamination, water shortages, waterborne diseases and permanent damage to a non-renewable resource.

P.S. Over at Gawker, they’ve created a New York City Subway Smell Map. When readers get a whiff of stinky matter, they can pinpoint the location on a Google mapusing unsavoury icons representing sewage, chemicals, alcohol and vomitand write nose-witness reports.

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