R.C. Harris and the East End Sludge Wars
By John Lorinc
Special to the Toronto Star: Sept. 15, 2012.
A century ago this year, Toronto council hired Roland Caldwell Harris, a self-assured 37-year-old, to step in as works commissioner and oversee a desperately needed modernization push for a booming city facing serious growth pains.
The population was pushing out into rural townships barely served by basic municipal services. Near the lake, overflowing sewer outfalls contaminated the beaches and deposited a metre-deep layer of sludge on the bottom of the harbour. Meanwhile, thousands of children died of infectious diseases linked to poor sanitary conditions and unsafe drinking water.
Yet the politicians seemed locked in an all-too-familiar dynamic that persists to this day: decisions about vital infrastructure were delayed or derailed by petty politics and short-sighted penny-pinching.
Case in point: in 1913, the year after Harris took office, the City opened a new sewage treatment plant on Eastern Avenue, near Ashbridge’s Bay. The need for such a facility, according to a 1995 history of Toronto’s public works by Catherine Brace, had been first recognized 60 years earlier; council spent 35 years debating the proposal. Yet the plant was obsolete the moment it opened.
Over the next 33 years, Harris transformed Toronto, building the civic infrastructure that formed the spine of a modern, healthy city. His career, featured in an exhibit entitled “The Water Czar” that opens this weekend at The Market Gallery, was defined by an ability to anticipate the future needs of a fast-growing metropolis.
His signature achievements – the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant, as well as many other bridges, hundreds of kilometres of roads, streetcar tracks, sidewalks and new sewer lines – all reflect Harris’ focus on long-term city building, as opposed to short-term constraints, like cost.
Even though Toronto voters in 1912 rejected a rapid transit plan as too costly, he equipped the new viaduct with a subway deck, which wouldn’t be put to use for six decades. With the water plant, he ordered his engineers to build what we could now call a scalable facility. Seventy years after its completion in 1941, the architecturally stunning facility still purifies 40% of Toronto’s drinking water.
Like many reformers of that era, Harris was also keenly aware of the role municipal infrastructure played in public health. In 1906, he and his wife lost their six-month-old son, Emerson Clewlo, to complications from an infection. The city’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Hastings, experienced a similar tragedy. Conservative politicians and editorialists accused both of profligacy as they sought to improve conditions.
Yet Harris’ career includes a notable but little known failure: despite years of trying, he couldn’t convince council to approve a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant to replace the one on Eastern Avenue. “His last unfinished challenge was sewage disposal,” says city historian Wayne Reeves, who curated the exhibit.
Harris certainly knew what he wanted, so the fault lies with the politicians and the voters. But the repercussions of a highly politicized 1940 decision to build the Ashbridge’s Bay Sewage Treatment Plant – located on 40 hectares of lakefill just steps from the city’s best beaches – haunts the waterfront still. Indeed, the story of how council ignored its experts’ advice in favour of a cheap alternative stands as object lesson in how short-term thinking begat decades of environmental, health, and financial headaches.
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As the Market Gallery exhibit reveals, water preoccupied Harris from the day he took office. Early on, he moved quickly to begin planning for a new filtration plant, to be located at Victoria Park, in the Beach. Yet Harris understood that the push to improve drinking water was inseparable from the goal of treating the sanitary sewage and industrial run-off that poured into Lake Ontario. The new Eastern Ave. facility had open settling basins to remove some of the suspended solids. But millions of litres of the plant’s partially treated sewage ended up in the same lake that was the source of the city’s drinking water.
In the mid-1920s, Harris had made significant headway in getting council to approve the new water filtration plant, later dubbed the “palace of purification.” At almost the same time, he was contending with another mounting problem: dealing with the sewage produced by the rapidly growing neighbourhoods in North Toronto. In 1926, Harris hired engineer George Nasmith (the man who introduced chlorination to the city a decade earlier) and a Boston engineer, Harrison Eddy, to develop a plan to treat North Toronto’s sewage.
Nasmith and Eddy recommended a cutting edge technique, known as “activated sludge aeration,” that involved forcing compressed air into the waste water to accelerate the decomposition of organic material. The liquid would be filtered and left to settle. The sediment was then dried to create “sludge cakes,” an odorless substance similar to low-grade fertilizer. Testing showed the treated waste water had very low levels of bacterial contamination.
Persuaded by his consultants’ analysis, Harris took the plan to council and got approval to build the North Toronto treatment plant deep in the Don Valley, south of Laird Drive. Decked out with buildings designed to resemble an English village, the North Toronto plant opened in 1929. The city doubled its capacity a few years later, and the facility has been operating smoothly ever since.
With the North Toronto plant open, Harris turned his attention to Eastern Ave., which overflowed constantly because it was designed to serve a population half the city’s size. The facility stunk up working class neighbourhoods in what is now Leslieville. It also generated dozens of lawsuits from aggrieved residents. In one case, the judge lectured the City from the bench, opining that Council should halt all “beautification” projects until a modern treatment plant is built.
In 1931, Harris hired consultants to come up with options for a new, modern plant, to be built anywhere but the Ashbridge’s Bay area. He again turned to Nasmith and Eddy, eager to replicate the North Toronto plant’s success.
Two years later, Nasmith and Eddy unveiled a game-changing idea: they proposed building a state-of-the-art activated sludge plant at the mouth of Highland Creek, several kilometres east. The city’s wastewater would be collected by large “interceptor” sewers and pumped through a long pipe to this new facility, which would be built to satisfy the eventual needs of a city of 1.5 million people.
It seemed like an elegant, environmentally friendly, long-term solution: Highland Creek was far from the city’s neighbourhoods. And the sludge cakes could be sold to Scarborough farmers for use as fertilizer. The downside: the long pipe would add $12 million to the cost, bringing the total to $25 million.
Canada in 1933 was in the throes of the Great Depression. Harris had already talked council into spending millions on an ornate water treatment plant, and aldermen like Sam McBride, who often sparred with the powerful bureaucrat, weren’t interested in another lavish project.
Within a year, the aldermen on the works committee had totally re-engineered the debate. The Ashbridge’s Bay site, for one thing, was back in contention, despite warnings from both Harris and Eddy that it made little sense to put a huge sewage plant near busy beaches and the city’s new water filtration plant – by then under construction.
There were other concerns, too. Unlike Highland Creek, there were no farmers near Ashbridges Bay who could use the dewatered sludge. Instead, the aldermen insisted, it could be incinerated on site. Yet Harris’ consultants, in a 1935, report, wrote, “We are not convinced that the sludge from the Ashbridge’s Bay plant can be incinerated with economy and with assurance of freedom from offensive odors.” It would prove to be a chillingly prescient forewarning.
Despite mounting public concern, council was deadlocked. The city finally appointed five technical experts to take a fresh look at the whole problem and come up with a recommendation. But that process also foundered, and the panel couldn’t come to a consensus. In a final report released in 1939, four of the five urged the city to build a $9.5 million plant large enough to serve 700,000 people, with a “complete” treatment process based on the technology successfully in use at North Toronto.
Yet one expert, an engineer named W.D. Redfern, loudly disagreed, and made his case in a “minority report.” In his view, there was simply no reason for the city to completely treat its sewage water because the bacterial contaminants that remained after settling would be diluted once dumped into the lake. It was an old and long-discredited notion. “By taking advantage of this natural resource,” Redfern insisted, “the cost of the treatment plant is reduced considerably as well as the annual operating expenses.” His “partial treatment” solution cost just $5.6 million.
In 1940, city council and voters backed Redfern’s cheaper option.
The city, Reeves says, couldn’t begin construction for four years because of wartime shortages of steel. Meanwhile, some politicians turned their guns at Harris, establishing a public inquiry into his management of the works department. In 1943, council even passed a bylaw requiring future commissioners to be engineers (Harris had no formal training). “He had been under incredible pressure for five years,” Reeves says. Harris died of a heart attack in 1945. “I think it’s really the thing that winds up killing him.” The plant finally opened in 1951.
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Anyone in the east end who’s ever soaked up the stink wafting off the Ashbridge’s Bay sewage treatment plant can thank W.D. Redfern and his cost-conscious political backers. R.C. Harris, as ever, had the correct instincts, but he simply couldn’t persuade a council determined to avoid raising taxes.
Ironically, Toronto politicians, in the decades since, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to solve the plant’s many failures and reduce its noxious impact on the local environment.
It’s a long rap sheet: The chimney leaked pungent sewer gas. The harbour waters nearby showed excessive levels of toxins. And a generation of politicians and residents lobbied to close the incinerator, which the city finally did in 2003. Despite all the fixes and retrofits, the city is still in court, battling a lawsuit over a 2008 incident when untreated sewage from the plant poured into the lake for three days.
With the benefit of hindsight, Toronto paid a steep price to save $4 million.