New sewage treatment rules fall short
Regulatory loophole lets wastewater plants off the hook.
By Elaine MacDonald, senior staff scientist
This may surprise you, but Canada’s top water polluters aren’t mining companies, paper mills or even oilsands operators. The top water polluters in Canada are actually municipal wastewater treatment plants. Each year, 3,700 sewage treatment plants release about 6 trillion litres of sewage, 150 billion litres of that untreated, into our waterways — and until yesterday Canada had no national standards for wastewater effluent.
But now, after many years of anticipation, Canada has finally introduced regulations that set out national wastewater treatment standards.
The shameful reality in Canada is that many of our cities still dump untreated sewage into our waterways. Ecojustice first exposed this ugly reality 18 years ago when we published our first of three national sewage report cards and we’ve been calling for national wastewater treatment standards ever since. Comparable jurisdictions such as Europe and United States have had national wastewater treatment standards in place for decades.
However the new regulations won’t solve our sewage dumping habit overnight. Some 849 sewage treatment plants will require upgrades to meet the new standards. And the new regulations give municipalities and treatment plant owners and operators, including the federal government, up to 28 years to come into full compliance with the new standards. Twenty-eight years — that’s a length of time never before seen for the implementation of new standards.
The regulations rate sewage treatment plants by risk — high-risk plants will have to meet the new final effluent quality standards by 2021, medium-risk plants by 2031 and low-risk plants by 2041.
But a regulatory loophole can let a high or medium-risk municipality that also has combined sewer overflows (CSOs) deemed to be a greater risk than the final effluent from the treatment plant, delay their overall compliance date until 2041. The intent is to allow the municipality time to focus on the combined sewer overflow problem by delaying treatment plant upgrades. CSOs are an enormous problem in many of Canada’s older cities and, as we reported in our Flushing Out the Truth, result in billions of litres of raw sewage being dumped each year. Unfortunately the new regulations don’t actually set any reduction targets or standards for CSOs.
Our concern is this loophole will simply allow cities to further delay much-needed treatment plant upgrades while not resulting in any tangible progress on CSOs.
The new regulations, announced by Environment Minister Peter Kent yesterday, are considerably weaker than the draft regulations proposed two years ago, even though written comments from Ecojustice and other environmental groups at the time urged Environment Canada to consider tougher measures. In particular, the final regulation doesn't contain the environmental effect monitoring program that had been initially proposed. As a result municipal and federal wastewater plants will be held to a lower standard than industrial wastewater dischargers, such as mining operations and pulp and paper mills, which are also regulated federally and have been for at least 10 years.
The benefits of treating our wastewater are huge. It means healthier waterways and ecosystems, which in turn means healthier plants, animals and people. And by failing to get tough with Canada’s top water polluters, the federal government is putting Canadians and our health at risk.