SYDNEY — Reports of a strange odor emanating from Sydney Harbor have prompted an investigation by the province’s Environment and Climate Change Department.
According to Tracy Barron, spokeswoman for communications and media relations, the department received a complaint as early as May 26 about an odor coming from Sydney Harbour.
“Following inspection, no source was identified and no further complaints were received by the department,” Barron said via email on Friday.
Nonetheless, she added, “Inspectors revisited the area and noted an odor from a pump test being conducted for a geothermal unit at the new Waterfront (Nova Scotia Community College) campus. In the test, water was pumped from the ground into a hole, where it (was) picked up again.
“The groundwater at this point is influenced by water from the harbor and has an odor.”
Another pump test should be done over the weekend, Barron said.
“The smell is harmless to health,” she added. “The odor is expected to disappear once the water is reabsorbed. A follow-up check will be carried out on Monday.”
Barron said it was not known if the May 26 complaint was related.
COMPLAINTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Complaints have erupted on social media in recent weeks about a stench wafting through the air, naming Sydney Harbor as a possible culprit.
“It wasn’t intrusive, but you could tell,” said Sydney-based Brent Desveaux. “At first I thought it was a problem with one of the buildings, but then it became more evident around town.”
Rod Beresford, an assistant professor of integrated science at Cape Breton University, said he noticed the stench two or three weeks ago as he was leaving his Westmount residence.
“The smell in the port seemed to be a bit stronger this year,” he said. “It smelled like egg, not necessarily rotten eggs, but it’s like opening a hard-boiled egg, it’s that kind of smell. Something sulphurous, or whatever is associated with a sewer.”
Although the stench hasn’t been all that apparent in recent days, attempts to find its cause have sparked much opinion on social media: Was it cruise ship sewage? Leaks from sewers and water treatment plants? Something that came from areas formerly occupied by the tar ponds?
Many of them disproved these theories when they turned to local and provincial officials for answers.
“It’s illegal for cruise ships to offload anywhere,” said Port of Sydney chief executive Marlene Usher. “All sewage would have to be disposed of or treated on land. Canadian waters have very strict regulations.”
However, Usher told the Cape Breton Post that she too had heard a number of these rumors and suggested contacting the province’s Environment and Climate Change Department. That department did not provide the complainant’s name in its reply.
Usher added that she reached out to the Cape Breton regional community to “get an understanding of what those smells were. They told me they are doing their own investigation because they’ve received calls about this as well,” she said.
“We checked our locations and tried to see if we could source the odor, but we did not determine that it came from any of our treatment plants or facilities,” added Christina Lamey, CBRM’s communications and information officer, closing it possibilities.
GET THE SMELL
CBRM Councilor Lorne Green, who represents Whitney Pier, South Bar and Victoria Mines, said from calls he’s received he suspects community construction crews “may have taken a sewage jet down and placed a sewage jet in one of the sewage basins and rinsed them. And that seemed to have made the smell go away. It sounds like it’s isolated to one area, but it’s not isolated.”
Green and Usher have also heard rumors of dry seaweed causing a strong stench in the area, but said they couldn’t confirm the theory.
Desveaux added he reached out to his councilman Steve Gillespie to find out where the source might be.
The Cape Breton Post also reached out to Nova Scotia Lands for an answer to the tar pond leak theory and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to confirm ocean runoff possibilities.
“We are regularly monitoring the tar ponds in Sydney. We are confident that the odor is not from the tar pools in Sydney,” said Deborah Bayer, provincial public works spokesman, on behalf of Nova Scotia Lands via email.
Stephen Bornais, Fisheries and Oceans Communications Advisor for the Maritimes region, added: “We have contacted all potentially relevant Fisheries and Oceans Canada offices in our region and all have confirmed that they are not aware of the issue.”
Meanwhile, Bruce Hatcher, associate biology professor at Cape Breton University and director of the Bras d’Or Institute for Ecosystem Research, has also considered the possibility that rapid changes in atmospheric pressure combined with strong winds are pushing water from one end Bodies of water to the other – what scientists call a “seak” – and eventually exposing any rotting material on the bottom of the harbor.
“Usually this material is trapped down there because it’s warm water at the top and cold water at the bottom and salty water — and none of that mixes,” he said. “So the bad stuff on the floor doesn’t get mixed up with the surface; it just goes in and out with the tide and we don’t realize it.
“When you get this seiche, it mixes it to the surface. Then those chemicals — hydrogen sulfide, that rotten egg smell — become very volatile and go straight into the air.”
Ian Nathanson is a political reporter at the Cape Breton Post. Follow him on Twitter at @CBPost_Ian