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Cochrane Town Council receives report on sewer and water incident

A preliminary report on how and why a breach of sewer and water lines caused raw sewage to be dumped into the Bow River in Cochrane was delivered to Town Council Nov.20.
The Cochrane wastewater incident that prompted a declaration of a state of emergency in October has a preliminary cost estimate of between $400,000 and $700,000.

The sewage and water line breach at Riverfront Park last month resulted in the Town of Cochrane declaring a State of Local Emergency (SOLE), and garnered national and even international media attention at one point.

Many blanks still need to be filled in, but some of some of the unknowns surrounding the incident became known Nov. 20 when Cochrane CAO Mike Derricott presented a report to Town council.

The contractor working on what the Town calls the Syphon Twinning Project broke the sanitary sewage pipe and the water pipe on Oct. 21, resulting in raw sewage being discharged into the Bow River for about 36 hours.

The Syphon project had been awarded to Whissell Contracting Ltd. of Calgary.

The irony was not lost on some observers that the damage was done while workers were engaged in a project designed to improve the capacity of the sewer infrastructure.

At first it was thought that only the sanitary sewer line had been broken, but the broken water pipe – a high pressure line – significantly upped the complexity of the situation.

An Emergency Coordination Centre recovery task force has been formed to review the incident.

For now, Derricott pegged the ballpark cost at somewhere between $400,000 and $700,000, quickly confirming that it won’t have a direct impact on taxpayers.

“What we can say is it’s pretty clear that the drilling location was incorrect to start the project, and as to why that happened, and the responsibilities and accountabilities associated with that – that’s the purpose of the investigation.”

It’s still unclear who’s to blame.

“The investigation into the incident is occurring concurrently with the project restart, the outcome of the investigation will aid in determining cause and accountability,” Derricott said in his presentation.

The unknowns now moved over to the known column include ballpark costs, basic financial liability, and taxes will not go up because of the incident.

It’s known that mistakes were made.

And it’s now known exactly where the underground pipelines are located, albeit at quite a cost.

For years industry practice in building underground utilities, (if they were put in place using an excavated open trench as opposed to directional drilling) has been to cover new pipes with a certain amount of sand or other material that helps future excavators to identify where an old trench was once dug. It was just one way to assist construction workers looking to locate and avoid existing underground lines. Blueprints of existing underground infrastructure are the key source of information.

But it is not and has never been an exact science, and underground rehabilitation work is inherently risky.

Just a couple of weeks after the Riverfront Park breach, a contractor’s excavator pulled out a gas line on Centre Avenue, days after the road had been re-opened to traffic, causing residents in three adjacent buildings to be temporarily evacuated.

Derricott acknowledged there would be community members looking for better answers as to who’s to blame.

“I’m sure there are many in the community who would love a very specific, detailed answer to that. There are a couple of reasons why we can’t do that, not the least of which is there are some legal and insurance-based processes that are underway,” he said.

The financial risk to the Town is mitigated by insurance coverage, but the CAO stopped short of guaranteeing the costs will be completely covered.

“We feel confident that we are in a positive position with regard to that,” he added. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say more than that at this point.”


Derricott’s report consisted mainly of a summary of things that had been essentially covered by three news conferences and 25 news releases.

The Town was notified at 6 pm on Oct. 21 that the contractor had hit the pipelines, and the ECC was activated at 8:30, which allowed them to work with the City of Calgary, Rocky View County, Alberta Environment and Protected Areas, and Alberta Health Services.

A Water Restriction was put in place the next morning and water was restricted to local hotels and a car dealership as work got underway to repair the lines.

The SOLE was declared Oct. 24, and lifted two days later as water levels at reservoirs came back up to acceptable levels. Drinking water quality was never compromised.

The story gained national coverage, with the single largest readership coming Oct. 27 when a Toronto Star story reached just over 4 million readers.

By Nov. 10 regular water service had been restored to households on Riverside Place and temporary road closures had been lifted.

Derricott said after meeting with the contractor and consulting engineer, it was decided to go ahead with the twinning project now. Residents will see construction impacts in the area.

“The safest and most cost-effective time to do the project remains now,” he said.

Directional drilling is expected to be completed early in 2024.

Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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