Here's a August Entry From James Powell's Blog:


Lights Out!

14 August 2003

It was a typical mid-August summer day in the nation’s capital—hot and muggy. Earlier that Thursday, the thermometer had topped 31 degrees Celsius. By mid-afternoon, the usual early rush hour of public servants was in full swing, with cars pouring out of the city, many heading north towards cottage country in the Gatineau hills to get some relief from the heat and humidity. But the evening was going to be anything but normal. Without warning at 4:11pm, street lights failed, air conditioners stopped, and computers went dark across Ottawa.

It took a while for the enormity of the situation to be fully appreciated. Electric power had failed across eight U.S. states and much of Ontario, reminiscent of the blackout that had plunged much of the U.S. North Eastern seaboard and Ontario into darkness in 1965. In the course of a few minutes, some one hundred electrical generating plants, including 22 nuclear power plants, shut down. More than 50 million people were left without power living in an area of roughly 24,000 square kilometres.

Less than two years following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, people’s first thoughts were of terrorism. While this possibility was quickly ruled out, politicians on both sides of the international border were quick to lay blame on others. Prime Minister Chrétien’s office suggested that a lightening strike at an upstate New York power station was responsible for the cascading failure across the international electrical grid. New York power authorities denied this, claiming that the problem originated outside of the United States, i.e. Canada. New York Governor Pataki also pointed the finger at Canada, while Canadian Defence Minister John McCallum blamed a failure at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plan. None were right.

The following year, the inelegantly named U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force concluded that the cascading failure originated in Ohio. High temperatures and a corresponding high demand for power had caused overloaded transmission wires to heat up and sag, touching unpruned trees. This in turn caused a generating plant in Eastlake, Ohio to shut down, putting an intolerable strain onto other transmission lines, which in turn tripped breakers shutting down power elsewhere as successive plants were overloaded. The outage could have been easily managed and the resulting blackout contained locally had there not been a computer software bug in the alarm system at FirstEnergy Corporation, the responsible Ohio-based power authority, that did not go off in time to warn system operators.

While the immediate cause of the blackout was high tension wires touching trees in Ohio, the Task Force highlighted a number of systemic failures which contributed to the power grid failure. Importantly, the Task Force identified shortcomings at FirstEnergy Corporation. These included a lack of understanding about the deteriorating conditions of its system, and a failure to maintain adequately its transmission right-of-ways. A number of minor violations of existing regulations were also noted. More generally, the Task Force concluded that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the not-for-profit agency tasked with overseeing North American power production, did not have the authority to develop or require compliance of strong reliability standards by member utilities. In the absence of such reliability standards, no financial penalty was levied on FirstEnergy for the power blackout.

Back in Ottawa, life carried on more or less as normal that evening. With street lights dead, all intersections became four-way stops. Rush-hour traffic moved, albeit slowly, with gridlock avoided in some cases by pedestrians who took over traffic control. Despite the muggy heat and fraying tempers, the commute home was described as “surprisingly civil” by a police official. Long delays in OC Transpo service led bus riders to hoof it; many receiving rides from passing private cars. With all flights at the MacDonald-Cartier International airport grounded, stranded passengers either dossed down at the terminal or found rooms in nearby hotels.

There were some also serious problems that night. There were apparently 22 cases of looting in the city, as well as an armed robbery at a Sparks Street jewellery store. There were also three fires, one of which claimed the life of a teenaged boy. Restaurants were also negatively affected by the loss of refrigeration; some gave away melting ice cream to passersby. On the upside, the blackout provided the perfect excuse for impromptu street parties. As well, the clear sky that night was a great opportunity to view the stars, undimmed by light pollution—as long as you looked south. The lights of Hull and Gatineau remained on as Quebec’s power grid was unaffected by the black-out. They provided a surreal backdrop to Mayor Bob Chiarelli’s televised address to the city in offices in front of Parliament Hill to explain why the city was in darkness.

By the next morning, the lights began to slowly come back on. The state of emergency announced the previous night by Ontario’s premier, Ernie Eaves, was eased. Within 24-48 hours, power had been largely restored. But the system remained unstable and unbalanced; you can’t restart power plants with a flip of a switch. Government offices and many businesses remained closed for up to week before the situation returned to normal. Besides holidays for unessential staff, the blackout provided a perfect test of backup systems that had been established following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. In total, it is estimated that the blackout cost Ontario 18.9 million in lost employment hours, with manufacturing shipments falling $2.3 billion.

Could it happen again? On the positive side, there have been major improvements to the reliability of the international grid since 2003. Significant investments have been made on both sides of the border which have made the grid more robust. As well, the NERC has established and now enforces reliability standards with electricity producers, and has the power to levy significant fines in the event of non-compliance. Grid operators also employ simulators to model a wide range of possible scenarios, and how to respond to various catastrophic situations. The development of smart grids and distributed power production by lots of small producers may have also reduced the risk of major blackouts. However, it is impossible to plan for all eventualities. Human error, computer viruses and terrorism remain risks. So, keep that flashlight handy.

Sources:

CBC News, 2013. “Ottawa reflects on decade after massive blackout,” 14 August.

——————, 2013. “Blackout ten years on: How smart grids help blackout-proof the power game,” 14 August 2013.

NERC, 2013. NERC Board Approves 2014 Budget, ESCC Charter and Adopts 3 Reliability Standards, 16 August 2013:.

The Ottawa Citizen, 2013. “In Blacked out Ottawa, life went on (almost) as usual,” 14 August.

The Toronto Star, 2013. “Blackout 2003: How Ontario went Dark,” 14 August.

U.S.-Canada Power System Power Outage Task Force, 2004. Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout in the United States and Canada: Causes and Recommendations, April.

Wikipedia: Northeast Blackout of 2003.

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

And One More August Entry from James Powell's Blog:



Water Woes

23 August 1912

Pure, sparkling clean, tap water. We tend to take it for granted. Occasionally our complacency is shaken, as it was in 2000 when seven people died in Walkerton, Ontario when e. coli contaminated the town’s drinking water. But, thankfully, that was a rare event. Ottawa’s tap water consistently gets top grades for quality. Raw water from the Ottawa River is filtered and chemically treated in several steps to remove bacteria, viruses, algae, and suspended particles. More than 100,000 tests are conducted each year to ensure that crystal clear, odourless, and, above all, safe water is supplied to Ottawa’s households and businesses.

But this was not always the case. One hundred years ago, two old, poorly maintained intake pipes that drew untreated water from mid-river were the source of the city’s water supply. But the Ottawa River was dangerously polluted. The region’s many lumber mills routinely dumped tons of waste each year into the river. Decomposing sawdust was actually responsible for the death of a man from Montebello in 1897 when he was thrown from his boat by a methane explosion. Meanwhile, raw sewage from Ottawa’s burgeoning population, as well as from Hull and other riverside communities, was simply flushed into the river. Sewage from inadequately maintained outdoor privies also leaked into the region’s many creeks and streams that fed the Ottawa River. It was a recipe for typhoid fever.

While typhoid stalked all major Canadian cities during the first years of the twentieth century, Ottawa was among the worst affected. The disease annually claimed on average twenty lives, a shockingly high number for a community of perhaps 75,000 souls. Most of the deaths were recorded in the poor, squalid districts of Lower Town and LeBreton Flats. Civic officials, at best complaisant, at worse criminally negligent, did nothing. It was perhaps easier, and cheaper, to blame the poor’s unhygienic living conditions than to do something about the water supply. But even the death in 1907 of the eldest daughter of Lord Grey, the Governor General, who had been visiting her parents from London, didn’t prompt action.

Ignorance wasn’t a viable defence for civic leaders’ lack of action. By 1900, health officials were very familiar with Samonella enterica typhi, the bacteria that caused typhoid, and how to combat it. They were fully aware that the most common form of transmission was drinking water polluted by human sewage. They also knew that chlorine could be used as a disinfectant, rendering the water safe for consumption. Typhoid was a fully preventable disease.

In 1910, an American expert was finally called in to look at ways of improving Ottawa’s water supply. He recommended the immediate addition of hypochlorite of lime, a bactericide, as an interim remedy until a mechanical filtration plant could be constructed. Alternatively, he proposed that cleaner, albeit much more expensive, water be piped in from Lake McGregor in the Gatineau Hills. His report was shelved.

Disaster struck in early January 1911. In the space of weeks, there were hundreds of typhoid cases in the city. By the end of March, sixty people had died. By year-end, the death toll had reached eighty seven. Even before the epidemic had run its course, the first investigation by the chief medical health officer of Ontario concluded that it was due to contaminated city water. Owing to low pressure, an emergency intake valve in Nepean Bay had been opened to raise water pressure in case of fire. The intake had sucked in raw sewage into the water mains. The source of pollution was traced to Cave Creek (now a sewer) that ran through Hintonburg, a heavily populated area which relied on outdoor privies that emptied into the creek. Blame for the epidemic was placed squarely on civic officials who had done nothing to ensure a safe water supply for Ottawa citizens. A second study concluded that had hypochlorite of lime been added to the city’s water as recommended in the 1910 study, the outbreak could have been averted.

Some modest steps were taken to address the situation. Hypochlorite of lime was finally added to the water, but various technical problems prevented the full amount of the chemical from being used. A new intake pipe was also put down in 1911 and was in use by the following April. But the water remained contaminated as a significant portion of the city’s water continued to be sourced through the old, leaky intake pipes. Although Ottawa’s engineer warned city officials that the water supply remained in a dangerous condition, nothing further was done.


In June 1912, typhoid returned to Ottawa with a vengeance. So bad were conditions that MPs were reluctant to return to Ottawa for the autumn1912 parliamentary session, and lobbied for Parliament to be shifted at least temporarily to Toronto, or even Winnipeg. More radical voices wanted Canada’s capital to be moved permanently if Ottawa could not provide government workers with clean water. The Toronto World thundered that the city was advertising itself “from Vancouver to Halifax as a pest hole of diseases.”

With the disease striking during the prime tourist season, civic and business leaders were keen to play down the extent of the problem and the underlying causes. In mid-August, a secret meeting was held between business leaders, Mayor Charles Hopewell and the city’s medical officer of health to discuss the impact of the epidemic on commerce. On 23 August, the medical officer of health announced that the “typhoid epidemic had run its course” and that the water was now safe to drink; bacteriological tests for the previous five weeks having showed “conclusively” that the water was free from contaminants and was “fit for consumption without boiling or otherwise treating it.” It was a barefaced lie. Cases of typhoid continued to occur. Tragically, there were twelve additional deaths in September and a further nineteen in October, weeks after the epidemic had supposedly ended. In total, roughly 1,400 cases of typhoid were recorded in 1912 with 98 fatalities. In November 1912, City Council self-servingly declared that it was “not legally responsible to the [typhoid] sufferers, but only morally so.” It voted a mere $3,000 to cover urgent relief needs.

This time a judicial inquiry was held into the two epidemics. An investigation by provincial authorities indicated continued gross contamination of the water notwithstanding what the medical officer of health had said. It was also shown that contamination occurred due to leaks in both old and new pipes. The city engineer was suspended and Ottawa’s medical officer of health resigned. Although there was insufficient evidence to indict Mayor Hopewell, his reputation was ruined. He declined to run again as mayor in the 1912 election. In 1914, the provincial board of health concluded that “after careful investigations” the outbreaks of typhoid fever were “caused by the use of sewage-polluted water from the Ottawa River.” It added that it was “a disgraceful fact that up to the present date no satisfactory plan for a pure supply for that city has been adopted.”

While repairs were made to the intake pipes and the water was treated with ammonia and chlorine, it was only a temporary fix to Ottawa’s water woes. A permanent solution had to wait almost twenty years as debate raged on city council and in the courts between those that supported the purification of Ottawa River water and the “Lakers” who wanted to pipe in clean water from 31-Mile Lake or Lake Pemichangan north of the city in the Gatineau Hills. Construction on the Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant finally began in 1928. When the plant opened three years later, Ottawa finally had safe tap water.

Sources:

Bourque, André, 2013. City of Ottawa Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant (82 Years Young and Going Strong), Atlantic Canada Water & Wastewater Association.

City of Ottawa, 2014. Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant.

H2O Urban, 2008. Ottawa Report, 22 November.

Jacangelo, Joseph G. and Trussell, R. Rhodes, 2009. “International Report: Water and Wastewater Disinfection: Trends, Issues and Practices,.

Lloyd, Sheila, 1979. “The Ottawa Typhoid Epidemics of 1911 and 1912: A Case Study of Disease as a Catalyst for Urban Reform,” Urban History Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 66-89.

Murray, Mathew, 2012. Dealing with Wastewater and Water Purification from the Age of Early Modernity to the Present: An Inquiry Into the Management of the Ottawa River, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Ottawa.

Ottawa Riverkeeper, 2007. Notes on a Water Quality and Pollution History of the Ottawa River.

Provincial Board of Health, 1914. 1913 Annual Report.

The Citizen, 1912. “City’s Responsible for Typhoid Claims,” 12 November.

—————–, 1913. “Harsh Condemnation of Ottawa’s Civic Government by Members of Commons in Discussing Pollution of Streams Bill,” 26 April.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1953. “History of Ottawa’s Water System Long and Bloody One,” 28 April.

The Evening Telegram, 1907. “Earl Grey’s Daughter Dead,” 4 February.

The Toronto World, 1912. “M.P.’s Afraid To Go To Ottawa,” 5 August.

——————-, 1912, “Typhoid Epidemic in Ottawa Nearly Over,” 24 August.


Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.