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Cariboo Regional District found at fault for sewage floods

Ordered to pay Wildwood-area couple $77,000 and to remediate their property

A B.C. Supreme Court Justice has ordered the Cariboo Regional District to pay a Wildwood-area couple $77,000 in damages and to bring their property back to the state it was in before it was twice struck by overflow from a nearby sewage line.

Bawnie and David Ward had been in the process of taking the CRD to court over a March 2015 flood when, according to the findings of Justice Matthew Taylor, they were hit yet again by another surge in April 2020.

The first had sent an estimated 223,000 litres (49,000 gallons) of the sludge onto the property and denied the Wards use of about two-thirds of their 2.4 hectare (six acre) rural property,

While the volume in 2020 was less, it was still substantial, according to Taylor. By that point, the Wards had to sell off many of their animals because the pasture and two ponds on the property had been rendered too toxic.

The Wards' property is at the lowest point in a six-kilometre system that serves 192 homes in the area near Williams Lake and relies on gravity to collect raw sewage and send it to a lift station which pumps it into lagoons. The line passes along an easement through the property where there is an above-ground manhole.

The Wards also donated land to the CRD for construction in 2014 of a new lift station adjacent to the property.

The 2015 flood occurred when a windstorm caused a power outage leaving the lift station without electricity for several hours and at a time when the backup diesel generator had been out of service for a few weeks due to a broken coupling that had not been replaced. Due to the spring melt, the system was also dealing with high water flow and eventually backed up. 

Effluent flowed out of the manhole and into the basement of the Wards' home and over a large portion of the pasture for the next several hours. The CRD sent in vacuum trucks to the lift station and as long as they were pumping, the flow stopped but would resume again once a truck was full and had to be replaced with another one.

"The uncontested evidence at trial was that the CRD had never before or after seen or dealt with a sewage spill as large as the 2015 flood," Taylor wrote in the reasons for judgment.

But in the aftermath, the CRD took no action to clean up the mess, asserting instead that exposure to sunlight would be enough to decontaminate the property and that subsequent soil testing showed as much.

Taylor disagreed, noting an expert witness called by the CRD found the testing was done incorrectly.

A quickly-rising Minton Creek during the spring freshet was the source of the 2020 flood. Water overwhelmed the sewer line and left the Wards with 15-20 centimetres (6-8 inches) of sewage in their home's basement. 

The Wards blamed inadequate upkeep of the system by the CRD for the flood. In turn, the CRD claimed the Wards had damaged the manhole and failed to take adequate steps to stem the flooding.

Taylor agreed with the Wards, finding in part, that the manhole had sunk below ground level "which would have made a collision with a vehicle practically impossible." Instead, Taylor found the trouble with the manhole was due to a poor repair job by the CRD.

On whether the Wards failed to take action to stop the flooding, the CRD argued the couple could have used a tractor, sandbags or a shovel to attempt to stop the water from entering the manhole. 

Taylor said the tractor had hay baling installation on the front, therefore making it incapable of diverting the water in a timely fashion. Taylor also noted there were almost no sandbags available at the Wildwood fire hall and found it would have taken too long to fill those that were on the site and bring them back to the property to make a difference. Digging up the soil to create a barrier was also out of the question, Taylor found, because it was frozen at the time.

On remediating the site, Taylor set out a lengthy checklist of the steps the CRD must take, starting with hiring an engineering firm with expertise in the field and acceptable to both parties. Taylor also set a August 15, 2022 deadline to have the work completed.

As for the $77,000, Taylor awarded $35,000 for non-pecuniary damages related to the loss of use of the property and the smell, $30,000 was for the estimated reduction in the property's value and $12,000 for the cost of the hay the Wards had to buy to feed their livestock in lieu of the loss of pasture.

Taylor's findings were issued on July 30.

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