SYDNEY — Reports of a funky odour emanating off Sydney harbour have prompted an investigation from the province’s Environment and Climate Change department.
According to communications and media relations spokesperson Tracy Barron, the department did receive a complaint of an odour coming from Sydney harbour back on May 26.
“A subsequent inspection did not determine a source and no further complaints were received by the department,” Barron said via email on Friday.
Nonetheless, she added, “Inspectors visited the area again and identified an odour from a pump test being performed for a geothermal unit at the new (Nova Scotia Community College) waterfront campus. The test involved water being pumped out of the ground into a hole, where it (was) reabsorbed.
“The ground water in that location is impacted by water from the harbour and has an odour.”
Another pump test was scheduled to be conducted over the weekend, Barron said.
“The odour does not pose any health risks,” she added. “The odour is expected to go away once the water is reabsorbed. A follow-up inspection will be conducted Monday.”
Barron said it wasn’t known whether the May 26 complaint was related.
Over the past several weeks, social media erupted with complaints of a stench wafting through the air and pegging Sydney harbour as a possible culprit.
“It was not overbearing, but you could notice it,” said Sydney resident Brent Desveaux. “At first, I thought it was an issue with one of the buildings, but then it became more noticeable around town.”
Rod Beresford, an assistant professor of integrated science at Cape Breton University, said he noticed the stench two or three weeks back just as he was leaving his Westmount residence.
“The smell in the harbour seemed a bit stronger this year,” he said. “It had the egg smell, not necessarily rotten eggs, but it’s like when you open up a hard-boiled egg, it’s that kind of smell. Something sulphury, or what you associate with a sewer.”
Although the reek wasn’t as apparent in the past couple of days, attempts to find its root cause led to many social media-based opinions: Was it sewage from cruise ships? Leakages from sewer and water treatment plants? Something emanating from areas formerly occupied by the tar ponds?
In reaching out to local and provincial officials for answers, many of them debunked these theories.
“It is illegal for cruise ships to dump anywhere,” said Marlene Usher, chief executive with the Port of Sydney. “Any sewage would have to be disposed of onshore or treated. There are very strict regulations in Canadian waters.”
However, Usher told the Cape Breton Post she too has heard a number of these rumours and suggested contacting the province’s Environment and Climate Change department. That department, in its response, did not mention the name of the complainant.
Usher added that she did reach out to the Cape Breton Regional Municipality to “get an understanding of what those smells were. They told me they were doing their own investigating because they have also been getting calls about this,” she said.
“We have been checking our sites and trying to see if we can source the smell but have not found it to be coming from any of our treatment plants or facilities,” added Christina Lamey, CBRM’s communications and information officer, ruling out those possibilities.
SOURCING THE SMELL
CBRM councillor Lorne Green, who represents Whitney Pier, South Bar and Victoria Mines, said from the calls he’s received, his guess is that the municipality’s public works crews might have “taken a sewer jet down and put a sewer jet in one of the sewage basins and flushed them. And that seemed to have made the smell go away. It sounds like it might be isolated to one area, but it’s not isolated.”
Green and Usher also have heard rumours of dry seaweed causing a major stench in the area but said they couldn’t verify that theory.
Desveaux added he reached out to his councillor, Steve Gillespie, to find out where the source might be.
The Cape Breton Post also contacted to Nova Scotia Lands for a response on the tar ponds leakage theory, as well as Fisheries and Oceans Canada to confirm ocean sewage possibilities.
“We monitor the Sydney tar ponds site on a regular basis. We’re confident that the odour is not from the Sydney tar ponds,” said provincial Public Works spokesperson Deborah Bayer via email on behalf of Nova Scotia Lands.
Added Stephen Bornais, Fisheries and Oceans communications adviser for the Maritimes region, “We contacted all possibly applicable Fisheries and Oceans Canada branches within our region, and all confirmed having no knowledge of the issue.”
Meanwhile, Bruce Hatcher, an associate biology professor at Cape Breton University and director of the Bras d’Or Institute for Ecosystem Research, also weighed in a possibility that rapid changes in atmospheric pressure, combined with strong winds, are pushing water from one end of a body of water to the other — what scientists call a ‘seiche’ — and ultimately exposing any rotting material on the bottom of the harbour.
“Usually that material is trapped down there, because it’s warm water on top and cold water and salty water below — and all that doesn’t mix,” he said. “So the bad stuff on the bottom doesn’t get mixed to the surface; it just goes in and out with the tides and we don’t notice it.
“When you get this seiche, it mixes it up to the surface. Then those chemicals — hydrogen sulphide, that rotten egg smell — become very volatile and go right into the air.”
Ian Nathanson is a political reporter at the Cape Breton Post. Follow him on Twitter at @CBPost_Ian