Chelsea, Quebec residents raise stink on lingering septic smell

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by Mark Burgess on April 29, 2010

Chelsea, Quebec's Director of Public Works Alain Bourgeois stands in front of the reed bed at the end of Mill Rd.

Chelsea, Quebec's Director of Public Works Alain Bourgeois stands in front of the reed bed at the end of Mill Rd.

For more than five years, Ray and Sandra Garbutt have been saying their Chelsea, Quebec neighbourhood stinks.

The Garbutts, occupants of one of the Mill Road houses serviced by the sewer system the municipality of Chelsea installed in 2004, say the smell emanating from it – which they likened to rotten eggs – is noticeable twice per week, on average. Sometimes, they say, it lasts the whole day.

“We can’t go out for walks,” said Sandra, who added that the odour is most potent on cold winter days.

The Garbutt’s neighbour, Marilyn Knight, said it smells like a gas.

“It almost takes your breath away,” she said.

The Mill Road system, whose septic tanks empty out into a reed bed down a slope from the street’s end, serves a modest 42 buildings, for a total of 79 units. With Chelsea planning a sewer system along Old Chelsea Road whose scale dwarfs that serving Mill Road, with sewage lagoons potentially going on Innovation Chelsea land just south of the reed bed, residents hope the stink that’s been bothering them for so long doesn’t get any worse.

The Garbutts scheduled an interview with the Low Down to discuss the problem April 22. After Ray mentioned the meeting to Mayor Caryl Green, Director of Public Works Alain Bourgeois and Head of Maintenance Jean Joanisse joined the gathering at Mill Road.

Bourgeois did his best to explain the history of problems and attempted solutions, and Joanisse went as far as giving Knight and the Garbutts his personal cellphone number to contact him when the smell occurs.

“It’s more than we’ve ever had before,” Sandra said of the attention from the municipality, adding that former mayor Jean Perras repeatedly claimed to know nothing about the problem despite frequent complaints.

Bourgeois said the smell was originally coming from the septic tank, a problem he thinks has been resolved, but now the reed beds are causing the odour. At one point, not all four components in the beds were working. That, too, has been resolved, he said, suggesting that one of the beds might have collapsed now.

“If it collapsed, it must have happened on Day One, because the smell’s been there all along,” Knight said.

Bourgeois said the municipality asked the engineering company responsible for the system to do a step-by-step analysis to find the problem. It’s a trial-and-error process, he said – so far they’ve sealed manholes with plastic wrap, installed carbon filters and elevated the vents at the top of the hill so the air is released higher from ground level.

Still, the smell persists.

“It’s not getting any better,” Sandra said. “I wonder why we don’t have an engineer who can fix this problem.”

Bourgeois said the municipality wants to identify the problem before investing in a solution.

Just before Bourgeois left, adjourning the meeting, Sandra found a letter from former Chelsea Environmental Inspector Marie Cabana with a copy CC’d to Bourgeois. It said a design engineer is studying the problem, that the municipality is concerned and that they’re looking to resolve it at the earliest delay. The letter is dated Jan. 26, 2005.

More than five years later, the Garbutts see no evidence of that resolution.