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'Fatbergs' are plaguing Metro Vancouver's sewers — has Coquitlam found a solution?

Understaffed and overworked, Metro Vancouver sewer workers can't keep up with a rising 'fatberg' problem threatening to blow sewage onto streets and into streams — now Coquitlam is looking to crack down on the city's greasy habits, and pave the way for a regional solution.

The city of Coquitlam is stepping up measures to crack down on and educate commercial kitchens for their greasy contribution to so-called ’fatbergs’ — subterranean build-ups of fat, oil and grease that block sanitary sewers and can lead to overflow.

The move comes as at least one Burquitlam neighbourhood in the city continues to raise the alarm over repeated sanitary sewer overflows that at one point in 2020 spewed fecal matter and toilet paper adjacent to a park and salmon-bearing stream.

Those overflows, affirms a recent report to council, can cause serious property damage, flow across roads into stormwater drains, and eventually empty into rivers and streams devastating the environment.

Metro Vancouver is responsible for regulating the discharge of fats, oils and greases into the sanitary sewer system, every year spending at least $2.7 million to unclog hotspots.

But according to the city’s report, Metro Vancouver is losing that battle. Coquitlam city staff write that “the level of regional inspection and enforcement resources undertaken in Coquitlam is below our expectation” and has led to “undesirable grease hot spots in the city causing sewer backups, property damage and sanitary sewer overflows.”

“I think Coquitlam has a point,” said Peter Navratil, Metro’s general manager of liquid waste services. “We don’t have all that many staff. We have 13,000 food establishments. It’s spot checks at best.”

Between 2013 and 2018, the report says Metro Vancouver staff conducted 30 inspections in Coquitlam; over that same period, 48 grease-related sewer overflows were reported because of a backup. 

The biggest scofflaws, according to a presentation made to council, are large and mid-size sit-down restaurants, with fast-food establishments, coffee shops and bakeries, and grocery stores also facing enforcement or education. 

While commercial kitchens are currently required by law to intercept grease, oils and fats before they make it to the region’s sewers, dozens of businesses are not properly maintaining their grease traps, a device that separates grease from wastewater and stops it from entering the sanitary system.

When these traps are not cleaned out or are not sized right, a kitchen’s greasy drain water passes right through the filter, depositing fat buildups on the walls of the sewer and other infrastructure. Over time, those accumulations squeeze sewer capacity like a clogged artery, leading to rising pressures that blow the fatty deposits to the surface in nasty overflows. 

RAMP UP ENFORCEMENT BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

One of the recommendations put forward by Coquitlam city staff would create a mechanism to immediately inspect nearby kitchens and their grease traps in the event of a sanitary sewer overflow. Currently, the city has to wait on Metro staff to show up in a planned inspection. 

Metro Vancouver inspection staff focus on industrial dischargers of fat and greases. That’s because they pose the biggest risk due to the sheer volume they pump into the system. Getting to the other 13,000-odd commercial kitchens can be tough, and Metro’s Navratil said “there certainly isn’t enough bodies going around to keep an eye out.”

Coquitlam aims to plug the regulatory hole by building on the success of the city of Richmond. The staff report recommends Coquitlam amend three bylaws so city staff can expand education and ramp up penalties for rule-breakers. Fines, according to the report, should be upped to $1,000 per infraction across the board from a current range of $100 to $500 per violation.

Those measures are particularly important as the city green-lights the development of Coquitlam Centre into a regional urban hub, where mixed commercial and residential buildings built on relatively flat terrain mean “the risk of grease hot spots will increase significantly,” notes the staff report.

Indeed, recent population projections from Metro Vancouver forecast the Tri-Cities region to climb to nearly 400,000 people in 2050 from a population of 263,000 people in 2020. 

Across the Metro region, the 21 municipalities are forecast to add another million people to their urban cores and suburban corridors. 

But not all municipalities are in lock-step to make sure the added population doesn’t overwhelm Metro’s sewers with so-called fatbergs.

Navratil applauded Coquitlam for moving to get “more boots on the ground,” and by cracking down on resident’s greasy habits, the city is setting the bar for the region. But Navratil also says going it alone, municipality-by-municipality, risks widening the gaps in Metro’s regulatory patchwork. 

“Are we all comfortable where we’re going here?” he asked. “That’s a decision we need to make as a region.” 

* This story is the second in the series Under your Feet: How fatbergs, busted pipes and climate change are threatening Metro Vancouver’s sewer system.