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‘Grease ball fix must be complete’

“Sewage balls” plaguing South Shore beaches must be tackled “completely” to protect the island's most important tourism asset, according to the Bermuda Tourism Authority.

Greenrock and the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce echoed the call after “grease balls” were found on Grape Bay Beach last Wednesday, three years after a study showed that sewage outfall on South Shore had created a public health hazard.

However, BEST spokesman Stuart Hayward cautioned that Bermuda does not have the money or space for a treatment system that would fix the problem, which has been reported for more than a decade and has been a major source of concern over the past two years. [See timeline below for more details].

Glenn Jones, director of public and stakeholder relations at the BTA, said: “Grease balls are still an issue in Bermuda. As a result of what happened two or three years ago we have better dialogue and monitoring. But we have to solve this problem completely.”

Chief executive Bill Hanbury added: “We are very supportive of the additional provisions that Government has brought in to tackle the problem of grease balls in Bermuda.

“But the problem needs to be completely solved. Bermuda's most important tourism asset is its beaches and they need to be secured and maintained and protected.”

This newspaper first reported on the “grease balls” washing up on South Shore beaches in 2002.

They hit the headlines again when a 2013 water quality study conducted by the University of Laval, Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and a Government scientist showed that human bacteria levels in the waters off South Shore beaches reached up to four times the acceptable US standard during strong easterly winds, tide and swell.

This led to a Bermuda Government assurance that the water quality would be monitored on a daily basis and measures taken to rid the island of potential pollution. However, the balls reappeared on Wednesday, with Grape Bay Beach area resident Debra Norman calling it one of the “worst days I have ever seen”.

Greenrock executive director Jonathan Starling said this was “disappointing”, adding: “The fact that they are still a problem would indicate that we still have some way to go in addressing the issue.

“It indicates that there's no easy fix, but we need to start addressing our environmental problems sustainably,” he added.

“It's really a matter of whether we as a people are willing to invest in this, or if we're happy to keep dumping sewage off our coast and risking undermining our beach tourism in the process with negative news stories like this.

“We cannot just keep dumping our environmental problems and think they won't come back to haunt us — in this case very visually in the form of grease balls.”

Mr Starling also questioned if pumping sewage “off the coast of our key beaches and southern reef systems is a good idea” in this day and age, and whether there are alternatives.

He drew on Singapore's sewage treatment model, which reuses sewage effluent as potable water, as an example.

“I can envision a system where we're at least producing grey water that can be used for flushing at least the hospital toilets and for watering public parks, and even using the resulting sewage sludge as fertiliser, either for public parks, farms or just as part of a composting plan to convert Pembroke Dump into Pembroke Park.

But he added that the measures such as mandatory grease traps for all commercial kitchens, which have been in effect in the City of Hamilton since 2014 and will be enforced island-wide in 2017, the introduction of a Hamilton sewerage tax to provide a revenue base for upgrades to the system and the water sampling testing routine, had been “the right steps within the existing sewerage system we have”. However, he questioned whether they had been “executed to a satisfactory level” and stressed that more needed to be done.

Mr Hayward was also optimistic that the regulations mandating grease traps to prevent fats, oils and grease entering the sewage system, would help, although he said an upgrade in monitoring would also assist.

“Aesthetically they [the grease balls] are great concern,” he said.

“Even though, to the best of our knowledge there have been no recent ill health effects, this isn't going to benefit and could actually harm Bermuda's image as a tourist destination.”

But he added that “given the island's budgetary and space restraints”, the measures implemented so far “have helped inhibit grease ball formation”.

“We just don't have the money or space just now for the ideal of full tertiary treatment of the city's sewage and wastewater,” he said.

“It will help to remember that this kind of waste is human generated — that's us.

“More people means more waste; more affluence means more waste per capita.

“Ultimately, this is a carrying-capacity issue.”

Mr Starling also pointed to the new sewage treatment plant at the hospital, suggesting that the problems, which concerned the organic content of the wastewater being more variable than expected as well as levels of fats, oils and grease, reported by this newspaper in May could still be ongoing.

However, a Bermuda Hospitals Board spokeswoman said last week that “good progress” had been made on our Sewage Treatment Plant operations.

“An inspection this week by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources confirmed that the plant was not generating any greases, and that the effluent water quality was good.”

After the most recent reports of grease balls, a Government spokeswoman said last week that bypasses had been checked and an expedited outfall dive was requested.

She added that the area would be subject to increased testing and that another clean-up of the beach — the last having been undertaken on August 17 — would be done in the next “24 hours”.

Subsequent visits by this newspaper confirmed that it had been cleared by Thursday and no evidence of grease balls was found at Grape Bay, Hungry Bay, Devonshire Bay and John Smith's Bay on Friday.

Meanwhile, questions to BIOS about the monitoring of the issue went unanswered, with a spokeswoman saying they were no longer involved and claiming no knowledge of the 2013 report.

And further questions to the Government about how many reports there had been, the nature of the sampling process and updates to proposed solutions have yet to yield responses.

How our grease ball problem has gathered pace

October 10, 2002:The Royal Gazette reports “unsightly and potentially disease-carrying balls of sewage” have been washing up on South Shore beaches. Environmental Health Officer George Simons says Corporation of Hamilton engineers are trying to figure out how remove grease from the outfall system.

March 18, 2003: Opposition Senator Kim Swan raises concerns about the impact sewage treatment is having on the island's waters. He also claims that sewage being pumped from Hamilton cruise ships in the summer has contributed to the appearance of “grease balls” in Tucker's Town.

July 6, 2013: Government and the Corporation of Hamilton are working to tackle the island's sewage issues after reports of “grease balls” on the island's South Shore. The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences says the “grease balls” are presumed to be caused by the Seabright outfall used to dispose of municipal sewage.

December 12, 2013: The Bermuda Chamber of Commerce announces that restaurants in Hamilton must equip their kitchens with grease traps by January 1.

March 18, 2014: A 2013 water quality study raises concerns about “intermittent contamination” at South Shore beaches. The Department of Health responds that “small-scale specific microbiology studies” have been added to the regular monitoring of the Seabright outflow and adjacent beaches and that it is seeking “approval for a feasibility study for infrastructure improvements,” and that “investment in a new [treatment] plant is being made” to improve the handling of waste at the Tynes Bay Septage Facility.

March 31, 2014: The US Consulate warns swimmers to take infection risks into account, prompting health concerns.

April 1, 2014: Environment minister Trevor Moniz says “grease balls” and heightened levels of bacteria in the South Shore waters are short-lived and unusual phenomena.

April 4, 2014: A high-tech sewage plant at the new hospital wing comes on line. It is expected to be fully operational and improve the quality of discharge from the controversial Seabright sewage pipe off the south shore by at least 17 per cent once the new wing is completed.

April 23, 2014: Environmental charity Greenrock calls for an end to the “phoney political finger pointing” over the “grease balls” controversy, labelling the report findings and related local and international media coverage “painful and embarrassing”.

April 24, 2014: The Bermuda Government announces it would look into boosting the treatment procedures at the Tynes Bay Septage Facility, as well as “investigating” the extension of the pipe at Seabright.

April 29, 2014: The Corporation of Hamilton says the Seabright outfall on South Shore appears to be leak-free and that plans to improve the outfall are being “actively discussed with our consultants and stakeholders”.

July 3, 2014: “Grease balls” are found on Grape Bay Beach, as well as the eastern section of Elbow Beach, for the second time in less than three months. An environment ministry spokeswoman says beaches are being checked daily. Shadow environment minister Glenn Blakeney calls the situation “challenging”.

July 14, 2014: Government announces measures to tackle sewage on South Shore beaches including “significant improvements” to the Tynes Bay septage facility, which are being planned and implemented, and that “visiting engineers” will be weighing in on the feasibility of current proposals for a wastewater treatment facility.

October 24, 2014: The newly formed Bermuda Seawater Quality Scientific, Technical and Advisory Committee say they are co-ordinating measures to improve the wastewater quality. The Ministry of Public Works says it is “actively improving” the operations at the Tynes Bay Septage Facility with more control on the types of wastes being received.

May 7, 2016: Problems with the sewage plant at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital have not resulted in any risk to public health, according to a Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokeswoman, who confirmed there were “issues” with the plant relating to the organic content of the wastewater and levels of fats, oils and grease. The problems were expected to be “fully resolved in the coming months”.

May 20, 2016: The seawater at Bermuda's top tourist beaches gets a clean bill of health.

June 28, 2016: The Ministry of Health and Seniors announces that all commercial kitchens must be fitted with approved grease traps by September 2017.

June 16, 2016: A Bill that could see “modest” taxes on the City of Hamilton's sewerage system bring in $400,000 annually passes in the senate. Economic development minister Grant Gibbons had previously told the House of Assembly that the tax would provide revenue to update the sewerage system.

July 25, 2016: The Public Health Amendment (No 2) Act 2016 passes in the Senate, requiring food establishments to fit grease traps.

August 25, 2016: “Grease balls” are again reported on Grape Bay Beach. Government says the beach will be subjected to increased testing although tests at related beaches since the last report on August 16 had confirmed “good seawater quality”.

August 27, 2016: The Bermuda Tourism Authority, the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce and Greenrock warn of the detrimental effect “grease balls” could have on the island's tourism product.

Long-term problem: grease balls on Grape Bay Beach (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published August 29, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 29, 2016 at 4:56 am)

‘Grease ball fix must be complete’

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