PAssages – September 1956 – Water Treatment Plant Begins Operations

Prince Albert Water Treatment Plant manager Andy Busse points to a guage during a media tour of the plant in July 2017.

by Joan Champ

“I always took the river for granted,” Prince Albert’s Mayor Greg Dionne said in July on the anniversary of the Husky oil spill. “I won’t do that again.” I will take this one step further and say that I will never take Prince Albert’s Water Treatment Plant for granted. Every time I turn on the tap in our home, I feel truly grateful for the safe, clean water filling my glass. As Andy Busse, manager of the water treatment plant, said in an interview with the Daily Herald on June 28th, “Water is a life source. You can’t go without it.”

Our water has not always been safe. The North Saskatchewan River, the city’s only raw water source, has carried everything from organic material to industrial waste to oil spills through our city. Fortunately, Prince Albert has a state-of-the-art water treatment plant which was built in 1956, upgraded in 1986 and again in 2011. For an in-depth tour of the Water Treatment Plant that takes you through the steps to process our water from in-take at the river until it reaches our taps, see the City of Prince Albert’s excellent video on YouTube.

Here is a very brief history of our city’s water woes.

Organic Matter

“Some citizens claim they don’t know after taking a bath whether they’ve really had one or not, while others claim the rusty looking fluid makes tea taste unwholesome.” – Prince Albert Daily Herald, April 26, 1932

I remember back in the 1970s, Prince Albertans occasionally noticed their water smelled or tasted a little different. In the spring, melting snow and ice pushed sediment and organic material into the river. We were always assured by city officials that, despite the bad odor, the water was safe to drink. In early September of 1971, a “sloughy” taste in the city’s water supply prompted some citizens to seek fresh water at the natural springs north of the city. The City Engineer informed people that activated carbon was being added to the water to combat the bad taste and odor which he said was probably from “some form of vegetation that got in the river from a source upstream.”

Prince Albert residents won’t soon forget the boil-water advisory that started in early February of 2012 after harmful microorganisms were found in the public water system. The problem was caused by equipment failure at the city’s water treatment plant. The boil-water order lasted for six weeks, and was lifted in mid-March.

Industrial Waste

“Regardless of the greatness in size or influence attributed to these [Edmonton] industries, it is hardly conceivable that they intend to continue practices jeopardizing the health of an entire city.” – Prince Albert Daily Herald editorial, February 17, 1954

The discovery of crude oil at Leduc, Alberta, in 1950 had a long-term impact on the water quality of the North Saskatchewan River. Edmonton became a petroleum production centre, with oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and oil pipelines built on or near the river – the same river that provided drinking water to many communities downstream. The Canadian Chemical Company, for example, was built on Edmonton’s riverbank in 1951-1952. This plant produced acetate and other petrochemicals for the production of plastics, synthetic yarns, and similar products. It was not long before the drinking water in Prince Albert became polluted by industrial waste. 

In late 1953, Prince Albert residents became increasingly alarmed by the strange smell and taste of their drinking water. In February 1954, the National Research Council reported that samples taken from the city’s river water contained at least six chemicals, including methanol, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and crotoaldehyde. Similar chemicals were also found in the water taken from the waste pipe at the Canadian Chemical Company’s plant in Edmonton.

Little was known at that time about the toxicity of these chemicals. Fear rippled through the city. “Is it a hazard or is it not a hazard – that’s my chief concern,” said Alderman Allan Barsky to City Council on February 20, 1954. “[S]ince we now know that medical authorities are not too sure if this water contamination is injurious to health or not,” stated Alderman D. G. Steuart on March 16, “it’s a pretty serious thing for our 17,000 to 18,000 citizens’ health.” To make matters worse, Prince Albert’s water supply became polluted by Edmonton’s sewage the following year.

Over the next two years, strong pressure was exerted at all governing levels by Prince Albert officials. Early in 1956, John G. Diefenbaker, Member of Parliament for Prince Albert, introduced a bill in the House of Commons to provide for severe penalties under the Criminal Code for pollution by industrial wastes and chemicals. “That the city of Prince Albert and other communities along this God-given river should be subjected to a policy of industrial selfishness on the part of certain industries in the Edmonton area continuing to dump wastes into the river is abominable,” he said. Prime Minister St. Laurent’s government defeated Diefenbaker’s bill.

Measures were eventually taken in Alberta to address the water safety issue. In 1956, the Canadian Chemical Plant constructed special tanks for its waste water, and the City of Edmonton constructed a large sewage disposal plant. In addition, by the end of that year, Prince Albert’s own water treatment plant was in operation.

That was not the end of industrial wastes contaminating Prince Albert’s drinking water, however. In March of 1970, for example, city crews drained, cleaned and refilled the 2.5-million-gallon reservoir on the city’s west hill to remove foul-tasting water that had been polluted by substances thought to have originated from a chemical or petroleum plant upstream.

Oil Spills

The Husky oil spill of July 20, 2016 is fresh in the minds of Prince Albert residents. An estimated 200,000 litres on oil leached into the North Saskatchewan River near Maidstone, Saskatchewan, causing the Prince Albert to shut down its water intake for almost two months. During that period, water was supplied to the city by a 30-kilometre pipeline to the South Saskatchewan River.

A much smaller oil spill had threatened Prince Albert’s water supply in October of 1960. About 10,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the North Saskatchewan River fifteen miles upstream from Edmonton, caused by a broken pipeline belonging to Imperial Oil. Much of that oil ended up on the riverbanks during its journey downstream from Edmonton. Precautionary measures were taken in Prince Albert just the same. River water was drawn only from the deep, mid-stream intakes, and activated carbon eliminated any bad taste or odor that might have occurred in the water.

Thanks to the Bill Smiley Archives for its assistance in the preparation of this column.