September 30, 2009

A call for memories about new park site

As published in The Erin Advocate

I was reading again the series of columns published on this page by Harry Smith called "Gleanings from memories by paths of Erin". That was the title of the memoir written in the 1940s by Florence Baker, recalling what life was like in Erin village in the late 19th century.

Harry's excerpts from her writings are available on the Town website,, in the history section. As I read that elegant prose, I wondered what people will read many generations from now, when they want to know what life was like here in the 20th century.

Already it is starting to fade away. People are naturally busy with their families and jobs, so often it is only the highlights of a place that stand out in memory. As people pass away, many fine memories are lost. But when they are recorded and shared, memories build up the bonds that make a community unique.

Often the most vivid memories spring from growing up in a particular place. More people are writing memoirs now, some with the aid of fancy scrapbooking and photo software, but it is still mainly a private activity, intended to preserve memories for friends and family.

What if we could get more memories of Erin out into the public sphere, so that relative newcomers could get a better picture of what the place was like 40 or 50 years ago? How can we tap into that collective memory bank in a way that does not overwhelm readers with a huge flood of details that are difficult to absorb?

I was talking recently with Annamarie Holtom, who had been enjoying local talent at the gazebo in the new park at 109 Main Street. She was reminiscing with a friend about watching local folks perform at that same spot in the 1950s, on the stage at the old village hall. The "Erinettes" had put on "The Pirates of Penzance" and "HMS Pinafore" by Gilbert and Sullivan.

So I got to thinking about future columns. What if I could collect memories from lots of people about a specific place. It would not be an official history, but it would be interesting to read.

From time to time I will announce a local history topic and ask people to send me some memories that would be of interest to the general public. I will sort through them and choose excerpts to make into a column.

The first topic is 109 Main Street. Were you an Erinette, or did you know one? Did you attend any special public meetings there? What did the site look like? What other types of community events were held there? Did you see Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent when he visited?

I am expecting memories mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, but older ones are even better. Please include details so that readers can picture the scene, as well as your name, which I would like to include.

The Town has had many suggestions for a name for the new park at 109 Main. The new name will be announced at the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on Friday, November 13. I will have a column of memories ready in time to promote that event.

Just one or two paragraphs would be plenty. I cannot promise to include everything, but I will put in as much as I can. If you would like to write something a bit longer, please do – I will try to get it printed separately, like a letter to the editor. If you are already writing a memoir about Erin, or if you have ideas about future topics, please let me know.

Send memories or other messages by Friday, October 16 via email to: Or send a letter to: Phil Gravelle, RR5, Georgetown, ON, L7G 4S8 (it is in Erin).

I would also be glad to chat with people on the phone, or in person if they prefer. Call the Advocate office at 519-833-9603 if you want to leave me a phone message.

September 23, 2009

Downtown septic systems have "adverse impact" on Credit River, says MOE

As published in The Erin Advocate

Every community should deal responsibly with its own waste. This principle should be at the core of Erin's upcoming sewage debate. And since we are not dealing responsibly with our septic waste right now, the idea of doing nothing about it is unacceptable.

People may have various ideas and concerns about how to proceed, but the Town must decide on a plan of action. If there is no progress on a sewage solution, the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) promises to make the process mandatory.

Erin Village made a serious attempt at developing a sewage system in 1995, but could not get the necessary funding from senior governments. Only recently has the effort been revived, through the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study.

If the study stays on schedule, there will be a draft final report to Town Council in November next year. The municipal election, however, will be held on November 8. Is council willing to change the timeline so that all the candidates can see the final report and state their positions before the election? Is there any good reason why the final report to council could not be ready next September?

There will be plenty of information coming out in interim reports and public meetings during the next year, but to get some background, I spoke recently with Gary Tomlinson, Acting District Supervisor for the MOE in Guelph. He has worked on Erin's issues for many years. I asked about the severity of impact caused by a large number of septic systems in a small area.

He said that if the soil conditions are good, and the septic systems are spread out, the impact should be minimal. Unfortunately, these advantages do not exist in downtown Erin village or Hillsburgh.

"The soil type is largely unsuitable, the depth of soil overburden to bedrock is inadequate, the groundwater table is high, the various systems are crowded together and, in some cases, there is essentially no separation distance from the various branches of the Credit River," he said.

"As such, there is an observable adverse impact on the river due to nutrient inputs as its tributaries pass through the former Village and Hillsburgh areas."

Back in 1995, the negative effect of septic tanks in the old part of Erin village was well-publicized. Those worries have not gone away. How many older septic tanks and holding tanks would be found acceptable if they were subject to inspection? Why have the Ontario and Town governments allowed the situation to drag on for so long? Yes, we have had the amalgamation of Erin Village with Erin Township, but is that enough of an excuse for waiting 15 years?

Now, we are facing some consequences. Steen's Dairy has been allowed to spread its dairy wash water on farmland, even during the winter (which is not allowed for regular septic waste). The MOE has informed them that this practice will be phased out, not just in winter, but year-round. As part of an expansion plan, the company has decided to relocate their plant to Guelph (though the Dairy Bar will stay in Erin). Lack of sewers was not the only factor, but it was one of them.

"The ministry has informed the Town of Erin on a number of occasions that, based on the observable impacts on the Credit River, a municipal sewage collection and treatment system is required to serve both the urbanized areas and the outlying areas that will continue to generate septage and untreated sewage after the construction of those facilities," said Tomlinson.

"The municipality needs to demonstrate on ongoing commitment and progress towards that goal, or pursuant to its authority under the Ontario Water Resources Act the ministry will make the process mandatory. To date the Town of Erin has shown acceptable progress in meeting this requirement."

September 16, 2009

Septage treatment could be a business opportunity for Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) is committed to ending the application of septage and untreated sewage on farm fields, but it has been saying that for a long time, and still no deadline has been set. It has, however, prohibited application during the winter months.

"It is quite likely that land disposal of septage and untreated sewage will be discontinued prior to the construction of a collection system and municipal sewage treatment facilities in the Town of Erin," said Gary Tomlinson, Acting District Supervisor for the MOE in Guelph.

Since Erin's septage (sludge and liquid from septic tanks) and sewage pumped from downtown holding tanks cannot be spread when the ground is frozen, it will likely be trucked to a sewage treatment plant in Collingwood. Plants that are closer do not have the capacity to handle outside waste, or refuse to accept it. As Collingwood grows, it too could decide to reject outside waste. Erin is studying its sewage options, but a plant of its own is many years away.

Since the Town has no current responsibility to provide a destination for hauled septic waste, haulers must try to find a place to take it. If it must go even farther away than Collingwood, or to a plant that charges more, costs will continue to rise for consumers and businesses.

Homeowners now pay about $250 every three or four years for septic tank pumping. Most downtown businesses, however, cannot have septic systems since they are so close to the river. Having their holding tanks pumped out regularly can cost many hundreds of dollars per month.

Spreading human waste on farm fields could have less impact than the waste from farm animals, but the idea still offends many people. Over the years, there have been complaints to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), saying the rules are not strict enough, that MOE enforcement is weak or inconsistent and that land spreading should be banned.

Tomlinson said a total ban could be enacted if "adequate alternative facilities for disposal are deemed to exist, and/or the overall impacts on the environment due to land disposal are deemed unacceptable." He said the ministry has the legal authority to force a treatment plant outside Erin to accept Erin's sewage or septage.

Of course, sewage plants generate their own sludge, and huge volumes from city plants go onto farm fields. Debate rages about pathogens, heavy metals, industrial organic chemicals and antibiotics in treated sludge, but at least it has been treated.

In May, Environment Minister John Gerretsen was under attack in the legislature for a plan to shift sludge regulation to the Ministry of Agriculture, removing the need for Certificate of Approval permits.

The NDP's Howard Hampton accused him of ignoring the "human health impacts" of sludge, but Gerretsen insisted the government is relying on "the best science" and that public health would be protected.

Land application of untreated waste is inexpensive, and while it provides some fertilizing benefits, there are risks. The MOE tries to mitigate them, but is willing to tolerate them for now.

"The ministry is concerned about practices that could cause a significant risk to human health and the environment," said Tomlinson. "Run off from lands where untreated sewage and septage has been applied could potentially get into drinking water sources, such as rural wells, and expose people to serious health risks. The run off can also flow to water courses such as creeks and rivers and cause conditions resulting in fish kills."

Many sewage plants in Ontario are aging, and as the population grows, they are reaching full capacity. When land application of untreated waste ends, there will be a huge demand for treatment. So when Erin builds its new plant, perhaps we should see it as a business opportunity.

Build the plant with greater capacity than the town needs, and charge haulers from other areas who are willing to bring their waste here. I ran the idea past Mayor Rod Finnie, and he said it is a possibility, if council decides to adopt such a mandate.

A facility that serves a regional need might even qualify for higher infrastructure funding.

September 09, 2009

Don't stick your head in the septic tank

As published in The Erin Advocate

In the murky holding tank of septic waste disposal issues, words of wisdom naturally rise to the top.

"Never enter or stick your head into a septic tank," warns the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in its home inspection checklist. "There is no oxygen in the tank for you to breath, and the tank contains deadly gases which can kill you in only a few seconds."

Even if you don't believe it, common sense will tell you not to try it. Making sense of Erin's septic waste issues is no easy task, so before we dive in, let us review some fascinating facts.

Bacteria do much of the work of waste disposal, starting in the human body. Septic tanks typically have three layers: the sludge at the bottom, the scum from fats and oils at the top and the liquid in the middle, where anaerobic bacteria digest some of the solids.

When you put water down your drains, liquid is forced out of the septic tank and into the perforated pipes of a leaching bed, where a slime layer of oxygen-based aerobic bacteria consume organic matter in the wastewater.

When the system works properly, virtually all of the harmful bacteria and viruses are gone by the time the water filters down into the aquifers that feed our wells. If you have a private well, there is free testing for Coliform bacteria, including the dangerous E. coli strain. Call the Health Unit at 519-846-2715.

Since Erin has no sewage system, most homeowners have their own miniature sewage treatment plant. Naturally, it makes no sense to put chemicals into the septic tank which could kill the bacteria, or objects that will not decompose. Download a PDF guide to maintaining your system, in the Forms & Documents section at See the section entitled "Toilets and Drains are Not Garbage Cans".

Septage is what is pumped out of the tank. The sludge builds up and needs to be removed every three to five years, depending on how much the tank is used. If sludge gets into the leaching pipes, it can cost thousands of dollars to fix the problem. A new system could cost more than $20,000.

The Town does not provide a destination for septage. It is not like garbage disposal, which is now a County responsibility. Facilities to treat septage and/or sewage are normally operated by municipalities, but when there is no sewer system, no treatment facility is required.

"It is an individual householder's responsibility," said Mayor Rod Finnie. Once you hire a company to pump out your septic tank, it is up to them to find an acceptable destination for the septage. That situation is unacceptable for some people, like Erin resident Debby Gear. She was surprised that haulers outside Erin would not provide service, since many treatment plants will not accept waste from outside their town.

"I think the County should have responsibility," she said. "With so many people on septic systems, there has to be something in place for the rural residents."

Erin's septage, and the untreated sewage from holding tanks at downtown properties near the West Credit River, is spread on farm fields when possible, according to Ministry of the Environment regulations. Several years ago, that practice was banned in the winter, since the frozen ground cannot absorb the waste.

The alternative is to truck it to a municipality willing to accept the waste, with a sewage treatment plant of adequate capacity. Hamilton had been the destination, but the city has decided to stop accepting outside waste. Erin haulers now have to drive to the Collingwood plant, not a pleasant prospect in the winter. The situation is unstable, with no short-term solutions in sight from the Town, County or Ministry of the Environment.

"They're going to have to do something," said Ed Peavoy, who has been pumping Erin septic tanks for more than 25 years. Higher costs have forced his basic fee up by about $100. Fall is a busy time for haulers, since it is best to give the bacteria time to re-establish themselves before winter.

Things will be simpler once Erin has its own sewage treatment plant. "If we're going to deal with sewage, we should look after septage as well," said Mayor Finnie. Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) will include septage disposal, but a sewer system and plant could be more than 10 years away.

Well, here it is, the end of the column, and my holding tank of words is overflowing. Tune in next week to find out what the Ministry of the Environment is doing (and not doing) about Erin's septic waste problems.

September 02, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation

As published in The Erin Advocate

One of these years, I am going to have a truly relaxing vacation. It always seems that by the time I get finished all the things I have to do, and a few of the things I want to do, there is hardly enough time to sleep, let alone relax.

My vacation started with the Spirit of the Hills Family Fun Day, singing with the Young at Heart Choir. It was our public debut, in the attractive Hillsburgh Historical Park, dedicated to Nazareth Hill and his fellow pioneers, and we had a lot of fun. We are not professionals, but when the little kids start dancing in the park, you know you are doing something right. Thanks to the Hillsburgh Lions for the excellent peameal bacon on a bun and a friendly welcome.

Then I was off to a half dozen Doors Open sessions, which loaded me up with more Erin lore than my brain could hold, and left my feet tired and sore.

Then there's septage. I cringed recently when editor Joan asked me to consider a column on septage, a complicated issue that can really bog you down. I am not looking for sympathy, since the torture is self-inflicted, but I did spend a bit of my vacation digging into Erin's septage problem.

For those new to life in the outer reaches of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, septage is that sludge that is pumped out of your septic tank and spread on farm fields if weather conditions are right, unless the ground is frozen, in which case it has to be trucked to towns far, far away, until they decide they do not want it anymore, at which time we will be in some serious septage.

I will fill in more details in an upcoming column, but in the meantime, here is a tip for anyone whose septic tank is due for cleaning: do it sooner, not later.

Then it was time for camping, the vacation activity that last year I swore I would not be doing this year. Jean had bought an easy-to-assemble dining tent to replace the one we joyfully flung into the dumpster last year, and a canopy with a sturdy frame, so I would not have to climb into trees with ropes, trying to create a tarp ceiling for the camp site.

Still, it is a day of hard work to pack up the utility trailer, travel to Lake Huron, and assemble our new home, complete with bar fridge. The next morning, preparing for a day of relaxation, we got a phone call from my son Michael to whom we had lent our '97 Eagle Talon so he could join us camping.

The car had died on the 401 near Cambridge, so I ended up spending half a day to pick him up and Jean spent a half day getting him to work two days later. (It was the timing belt, so now we are vehicle shopping.)

Then there was the torrential rain, which created a small river that flowed through the bottom of our tent, forcing us to relocate it, then load most of our clothes and bedding into several dryers at the Goderich laundromat.

Before the full-day trek home, I did have time to read a collection of newspaper columns by humorist Dave Barry, which was fun, but a bit like work, since I kept wondering if I would ever be that good a writer. If I could get better, and find a topic other than Erin, maybe I could get myself syndicated.

Next, I spent a day in the pulsating blob known as Toronto. I saw the Dead Sea Scrolls at the ROM, took a tour of the legislature at Queen's Park (which is like a museum), checked out the grandeur of St. Michael's Cathedral (also museum-like), and caught a high-speed chess game on the lawn of Metropolitan United before heading to a Fred Eaglesmith concert.

The next day, I got back to my regular job, which was a good thing, because I needed a rest.