Sewage Treatment and Disposal in Quebec: Environmental Effects

Martin Nantel
December 1995

Each and every day, Quebec residents and businesses release 3.6 billion litres of treated and untreated municipal sewage into the province’s lakes and rivers, to the detriment of human health and the natural environment. In Sewage Treatment and Disposal in Quebec: Environmental Effects, Martin Nantel reviews the rules and agreements regulating municipal sewage treatment, and demonstrates how unaccountable governments plagued by conflicts of interests fail to enforce their own laws. The report ends with a series of recommendations that would alleviate sewage pollution in the province.

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● On page 3 and 4, I mentioned there are no tertiary sewage treatment plants in Quebec. Since the publication of this paper, it has been indicated to me that there are in fact seven of these facilities, that they serve 12 municipalities and a population of 73,600.

The correction of this mistake will result in minor changes of the percentages of Table 1 and 2, and in the percentages mentioned in paragraphs 3 and 4 of page 14. Appendix A will also be modified to incorporate the tertiary information.

I am still waiting for information from the Quebec Ministry of Municipal Affairs so I can bring the appropriate correction.

Martin Nantel

In Brief

● In 1995, an estimated 1.2 million Quebec residents are serviced by some 600,000 individual septic systems. Approximately 376 municipalities, representing at least
1.5 million people, flush their sewage directly into lakes and rivers. The remaining 4.6 million Quebekers live in dwellings that are hooked to one of 390 sewage treatment plants (STPs) scattered throughout the province.

● Over 60 per cent of the treated wastewater only undergoes primary treatment before being released into the environment. None of these primary facilities disinfect their effluent.

● Quebec’s STPs are not performing well. In their 1993 evaluation–the latest year for which data is available–the Ministry of Environment found out that 71 per cent of their plants were meeting provincial wastewater treatment standards. However, not all plants were included in this evaluation. When 57 previously unaccounted for STPs are included in the calculation, the number of STPs receiving acceptable grades falls to 57 per cent. This translates into a drop from 97 to 52 per cent in the quantity of wastewater receiving adequate treatment.

● The lax enforcement of many provincial and federal laws ensures that municipal polluters go unpunished and that unnecessary environmental degradation persists. For example, under Section 36(3) of the federal Fisheries Act, offenders can be fined up to $1 million for every day that they deposit a “deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish.” Yet, no municipal STPs in Quebec have ever been prosecuted for sewage effluent that violates the Act.

● Effluents containing raw or improperly treated sewage pose environmental and public health threats:

  • Sewage pollution contributes to a decline in the number of marine species by disrupting the food chain and degrading and/or destroying aquatic habitat. In addition, sewage pollution causes both acute and chronic toxicity in aquatic organisms. Cancerous lesions and other symptoms associated with chemical mixtures and high levels of suspended solids have been reported in fish.
  • In 1995, 34 of Quebec’s 190 soft clam and blue mussel harvesting zones were closed owing to contamination by municipal sewage.
  • Sewage pollution is also a health hazard for people swimming at contaminated beaches. Pathogenic micro-organisms found in wastewater can cause serious diseases such as hepatitis and meningitis, as well as less serious conditions such as diarrhea and skin and ear infections. In 1994, only four beaches were closed owing to bacterial pollution. However, only 27 per cent of the cleanest beaches tested more than once maintained their excellent water quality throughout the season. At a beach where water quality oscillates, the risk of catching one of many diseases doubles.

● As Quebec’s population grows, as the volume of sewage increases, as STPs exceed their designed operating capacities, and as older systems deteriorate, Quebec’s overburdened STPs run the risk of being further stressed, thus jeopardizing the progress that has been made in the past 20 years. The three levels of government should:

  • Upgrade the existing STPs so they can provide tertiary treatment with an environmentally-friendly disinfection process, and accelerate the separation of combined sewers.
  • Rethink the regulatory framework of the provincial Clean Water programs to ensure that STPs respect wastewater discharge limits. They should adopt strong enforcement policies with severe penalties in dealing with negligent STP operators.
  • Require each municipality to develop a source control program.
  • Set up stricter monitoring to provide information on the toxins dumped in sewers. This information could, among other things, serve as a cornerstone in gathering data against negligent industries and ensuring that they are prosecuted.
  • Introduce full water metering and implement effective water-pricing reforms. Reduced wastewater flows would alleviate strains on STPs, and would improve effluent quality.
  • Enforce the centuries-old riparian rights provisions of the Civil Code in order to empower citizens to take sewage polluters to court when the provincial government refuses to do so.
  • Privatize wastewater utilities. This would end the conflict of interest where the provincial government finances, regulates, and prosecutes STPs. Privatization would provide the capital necessary to upgrade STPs, while allowing governments to enforce long-ignored standard.

Full Report


If the 3.6 million cubic metres of sewage generated in 1995 by Quebec’s residences and businesses were to accumulate in one place, there would be enough to fill the Olympic Stadium more than one and a half times each and every day.[1] But sewage does not pile up in one single place. Rather, it is often deposited in some 600,000 individual septic systems[2] or, more frequently, treated by one of 390 sewage treatment plants (STPs) sprinkled throughout the province, and then released into the environment.[3] Unfortunately, even with today’s knowledge of the adverse environmental, health, and social effects of sewage, much of the wastewater we produce never gets to an STP and is directly spewed into lakes and rivers.

Because the enormous quantities of untreated and treated wastewater released into water bodies contain many substances that are hazardous to aquatic life and public health, it is important to address Quebec’s ongoing municipal sewage pollution. This paper first examines the various types of treatment, the performance of Quebec’s STPs, and the environmental and health risks of treated and untreated sewage. It then addresses the government’s failure to enforce the rules and agreements purported to regulate STPs, before ending with a series of recommendations that would alleviate sewage pollution in the province.

Sewage Pollution and How It Is Measured

The amalgam known as sewage contains far more than just human excrement and urine. Condoms, tampons, rags, as well as gravel, wood, and plastic containers, all find their way to municipal sewerage systems. Over 200 chemicals and other toxins dumped in the sewers by households, businesses, and industries spice up this sewage “soup.” To this already hazardous mixture, older sewerage systems add urban run-off—a combination of oils, animal wastes, and poisonous substances that further contaminate our environment when inadequately treated.

Once wastewater has been evacuated from homes, businesses, and industries, it is transported by a series of sewer mains to an STP. Cracked sewers also transport large quantities of groundwater that has infiltrated into them. At the STP, the influent is “purified” to a certain quality before being released into the environment. To determine the quality of the treated wastewater (also known as the effluent) released by an STP, four measurements taken in an effluent sample are generally analysed. These are of the suspended solids, the biological oxygen demand, the total phosphorus, and the fecal coliforms.

Suspended solids (SS) refer to the amount of undissolved solids in the sewage. Excess SS can block sufficient sunlight from reaching underwater plant life, thus preventing normal growth and productivity. This can have an effect on aquatic organisms feeding on these plants. Excess SS can also destroy spawning zones, fatally clog fish gills, and abrade the exposed membranes of aquatic organisms. Trace metals and organic contaminants, harmful to human health and the environment, can adhere to SS and enter the waters of Quebec through an STP’s effluent.

The biological oxygen demand (BOD5) refers to the amount of oxygen used in five days by micro-organisms breaking down the organic matter found in an effluent sample. A high BOD5 means that there is much SS in the effluent and indicates inadequate treatment. It also means that there is less oxygen available for aquatic fauna, which may well die if the BOD5 reaches very high levels. Certain species of non-tolerant organisms also abandon these waters.

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient to plant life, but when found in excess quantities, it can stimulate excessive and undesirable plant growth such as algal blooms, a phenomenon referred to as eutrophication. This can create large fluctuations in the dissolved oxygen in the receiving waters, thus affecting aquatic organisms.

Fecal coliforms are bacteria present in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals including humans, and can function as an indicator of fecal pollution in lakes and rivers.

Technology Used for Treating Municipal Sewage

In 1995, an estimated 1.2 million Quebekers live in some 400,000 isolated residences that are hooked up to septic systems.[4] Another 200,000 septic systems serve vacation homes. Approximately 376 municipalities, representing at least 1.5 million people, flush their sewage directly into lakes and rivers.[5] The remaining 4.6 million Quebec residents are served by STPs. Quebec’s 390 STPs basically perform one or more of four levels of sewage treatment.

Preliminary Treatment: Sewage is screened to remove large debris and to make it “look better.” Pretreatment does not remove any significant amount of SS, BOD5, phosphorus, bacteria or toxins present in raw sewage. Preliminary treatment effluent still poses environmental and health hazards. In 1995, two STPs merely pretreat sewage before releasing it into Quebec’s rivers.[6] Three more—in communities that now do not even screen sewage before releasing it— will be added by the year 2000.

Primary Treatment: The influent flow is slowed down and directed to a sedimentation tank where larger suspended solids settle naturally due to gravitation. The sedimented contaminants, also called the sludge, are then disposed of in a variety of ways. Floating solids, oils, and greases are skimmed off the surface. Dangerous water-soluble organic and inorganic substances are not affected by primary treatment.

Adding chemicals to a primary treatment plant increases its performance. While a conventional primary plant removes 25 to 40 per cent of the BOD5 and 40 to 60 per cent of the SS, a chemically aided plant usually removes 50 and 90 per cent, respectively.[7] Total coliforms are reduced by approximately 50 per cent.[8] As of today, 44 primary STPs represent 60 per cent of the province’s installed sewage treatment capacity. Together they handle the sewage of 48 per cent of the population served by municipal STPs.

Adding a disinfection process helps eliminate many pathogenic micro-organisms, thus making water safer for recreational activities. Unfortunately, not a single primary STP includes a disinfection process.

Secondary Treatment: The biological activity characterizing this type of treatment further removes BOD5 and SS. In this crucial stage of the treatment, oxygen is provided to micro-organisms to enable them to grow and to eat organic matter in the sewage. This ensures that the sewage effluent, once released, will not provide food for micro-organisms that would consume excessive amounts of oxygen required by aquatic biota.

Secondary treatment reduces by 85 to 95 per cent the BOD5 and SS, and inactivates 90 to 99 per cent of the fecal coliform bacteria.[9] Disinfection and phosphorus removal can be additional components of the treatment. In 1995, 52 per cent of the population connected to a municipal sewerage system have 344 secondary STPs, treating almost 40 per cent of the municipal sewage directed to an STP. Approximately 70 per cent of these plants could be considered advanced secondary due to added disinfection.[10] These plants collectively represent 21 per cent of the province’s installed wastewater treatment capacity (see Appendix A).

The town of Stoke, Quebec, is experimenting with an alternative sewage treatment method consisting of an artificial reed swamp.[11] The inexpensive and natural waste treatment plant provides the equivalent of secondary treatment. Although two additional marshes will be built before the end of this century, and a higher level of treatment will likely be achieved as the technology improves, artificial marshes will likely remain as small scale operations.

Tertiary Treatment: This process uses a mechanical or a sand filtration to provide a similar but more thorough treatment than secondary processes. Phosphorus removal and disinfection are often added after this stage as they are most effective then and further reduce the load to be discharged into the environment. No tertiary STPs operate in Quebec, and none are planned for the next five years.

Table 1 lists the various types of sewage treatment technologies used in Quebec in 1995, the number of STPs, their capacity, and the population served by each. Table 2 provides the same kind of information for the next five years. More detail is provided in Appendix B.

The Birth of Municipal Sewage Treatment in Quebec

In 1978, only seven per cent of Quebec’s municipalities, representing less than two per cent of the population, benefited from wastewater treatment. None of these municipalities regulated what users could discharge into sewers,[12] and only 30 per cent of their STPs functioned  properly.[13] The degradation of Quebec’s waterways and lakes by urban, industrial, and agricultural activities diminished biological resources, increased health risks, and interfered with recreational water uses.[14]

To remedy the situation, the provincial government launched the Programme d’Assainissement des Eaux du Québec (PAEQ). This subsidized Clean Water program, administered by the Ministry of the Environment (MEF), was designed to reduce urban, industrial and agricultural sources of pollution.

Under PAEQ, any municipality already equipped with a sewerage network and wishing to acquire wastewater treatment equipment could apply for financial assistance. By January 1994, 553 municipalities (representing 76 per cent of the Quebec population) had signed contracts with the provincial government, which agreed to finance 92 to 94 per cent of the costs incurred by municipalities acquiring wastewater treatment systems.[17] Once the construction of an STP is complete and provincial discharge objectives are met, the government hands over its ownership to the municipality, which is then responsible for its maintenance and operation, and funding comes to an end. Table 3 presents the characteristics of STPs constructed under PAEQ between 1978 and 1993.

In January 1994, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs took over the administration of PAEQ, altered its rules, and renamed it Programme d’Assainissement des Eaux Municipales (PADEM). This new program will finance 85 per cent of the construction costs of STPs in 232 municipalities (representing seven per cent of the Quebec population).[19] An additional 25 municipalities (representing 0.3 per cent of the Quebec population) may construct sewerage networks in time to be included in PADEM.[20] Table 4 provides more details on the two Clean Water programs.

As of 1995, 390 STPs funded by PAEQ serve 64 per cent of the Quebec population, treating their wastewater to varying degrees. By the year 2000, 465 STPs will benefit 73 per cent of the population.[21]

Performance of Sewage Treatment Plants

Every year, the MEF assigns grades to STPs based on their compliance with basic environmental requirements. Table 5 presents the results for 1993, the latest year available. That year, 71 per cent of the 238 evaluated STPs received what the MEF considers an acceptable environmental grade (A or B). This represents 97 per cent of the evaluated plants’ capacity, but only 52 per cent of Quebec’s total installed treatment capacity. The remaining 29 per cent of the STPs were classified as problematic for reasons explained in the table. Fifty-seven STPs, 16 of which performed poorly and 41 of which were assumed to be performing well, were left out of the MEF’s evaluation.[22] When these low-capacity uncounted plants are included, the number of STPs receiving acceptable grades remains 71 per cent, still representing 52 per cent of Quebec’s installed treatment capacity. Furthermore, if, to illustrate the performance of plants outside of the Montreal area, the Montreal Urban Community (MUC) STP is excluded from the calculations, only 25 per cent of the installed wastewater treatment capacity obtains a passing grade.

Field evidence also testifies to generally poor performance. Table 6 shows the aesthetic, health, and environmental progress made by 120 municipalities meeting the MEF discharge requirements in 1993. While demonstrating clear improvements in several areas, the results indicate ongoing problems with eutrophication and bacteriological contamination. As of 1993, 68 per cent of the water uses targeted for recovery under PAEQ had been only partially recovered, while just 32 per cent had been fully recovered.[24] It should also be noted that at the time of this evaluation, 175 municipalities had not yet conformed with MEF discharge requirements; these municipalities most probably had worse environmental records than the ones noted above.[25]

Beach Closings

In Quebec, freshwater beaches are closed, or posted, when fecal coliform densities exceed 200 colonies per 100 ml of water or when 10 per cent of the water samples indicate 400 colonies per 100 ml. Marine beaches are closed when enterococci, another group of bacteria indicative of poor quality effluent, combined sewer overflows, STP bypasses, and faulty septic systems, all result in beach postings. Combined sewer overflows occur when sewerage systems carrying both sewage and stormwater are overloaded by a sudden increase in water volume during a heavy rainstorm. The extra volume cannot be handled by an STP and is directly discharged into a watercourse through one of Quebec’s 1,820 overflow outfalls.[30] All of the municipalities constituting the MUC, as well as the many cities which built their sewage collection infrastructure before 1965, have combined sewers; all are subject to combined sewer overflows.

The direct discharge, or “bypass,” of raw sewage by STPs into the receiving waters is allowed by the MEF for reasons of equipment breakdown or operational problems. These happen relatively infrequently and represent a small portion of the total effluent. Within secondary STPs, discharging wastewater after primary treatment (primary bypass) occurs during storm events in order to make room for raw sewage that would otherwise completely overflow. Primary bypass also happens during repairs to a section of an STP or during the cleaning out of sludge. The MEF does not compile data on how much sewage is bypassed or allowed to overflow in a year.[31] However, bypassed and overflowed wastewaters certainly represent a very large load of toxins and pathogenic micro-organisms entering the environment.

In Quebec, the MEF Environment-Beaches program classifies hundreds of beaches according to their bacteriological quality. In 1994, 443 of Quebec’s 454 participating freshwater beaches and four out of the five participating marine beaches on average maintained good to excellent water quality. Only four beaches have been closed due to a D (polluted) rating.[32]

This classification system, however, is deceiving. Because fecal contamination persists  for many months after its indicators have disappeared, a beach needs to maintain a grade A all the time for its water to be safe.[33] At a beach where water quality oscillates, the risk of catching one of many diseases doubles.[34] In 1994, only 27 per cent of the A beaches tested more than once maintained an A quality throughout the season.[35]

Furthermore, the voluntary nature of the Environment-Beaches program leaves out from the survey many owners of polluted beaches who fear that low grades may result in a loss of customers. There were 621 beaches enrolled in the program in 1989, and only 442 in 1995; the beaches no longer participating in this program may well have poor water quality.[36] An unknown number of never registered beaches may also have poor water quality. The number of beaches in Quebec is thus underestimated.

It should also be remembered that according to a microbiological study conducted at ten beaches in Ontario, the levels of all the survey organisms were at least 10 times higher in the sediment than in the corresponding surface water.[37] Sediments at beaches may be a potential source of bacteria in recreational waters, as previous studies have shown that sedimented organisms can be resuspended into the water column by either wave action or bather activity.[38] Since current water guidelines and indicators do not address sediment quality, the risks involved in using recreational waters where municipal sewage has been deposited may thus be further underestimated.[39]

The Effects of Sewage on Fish

As seen earlier, municipal sewage degrades and destroys aquatic habitat, harming fish. The only provincial report that has looked at the effects of water pollution on fish communities was for the Assomption river basin in southern Quebec.[40] The report made clear that although both municipal and agricultural pollution affected the river’s fish communities, most drastic changes in fish population did appear immediately downstream of six towns which were not treating their wastewater at the time of the study.[41]

A diminishing number of species is one of the best-known signals of an ecosystem responding to an environmental stress.[42] The degraded river habitat immediately downstream of Joliette, where fecal coliform levels reach 10,000/100 ml, benefits omnivorous fish to the detriment of more specialized feeders.[43] While the density of omnivorous fish increases by 67 per cent immediately downstream of Joliette, the density of insectivorous fish drops by 27 per cent, and piscivorous fish, formerly making up 41 per cent of the fish population, disappear entirely.[44]

In addition to disrupting the food chain, sewage pollution directly affects the physiological condition of fish. In a study of external anomalies affecting fish in the Assomption river, deformations of the head, skull, fins, or other body parts, as well as fin abrasions, lesions, ulcerations, and tumours were all examined. A high occurrence of these anomalies often reflects the presence of untreated effluents.[45]

As expected, a very significant increase in external anomalies appears immediately downstream of Joliette.[46] In the upper reaches of the Assomption river, less than two per cent of the fish are affected by one of these anomalies. Moving downstream, these numbers increase to as high as 28 per cent. When other diseases such as black spots, numerous leeches, mushrooms, parasites, blindness, excessive skinniness, popped out eyes, and rolled back scales are included, these numbers jump from 3 to 35 per cent, respectively.[47]

Health Hazards

Conventional wisdom has it that treated domestic wastewater is “clean.” Nothing could be further from the truth: Just as raw sewage poses an obvious risk to public health, so does poorly or partially treated sewage. The health hazards associated with STP effluent originate from both the toxic substances and the organic matter present in that effluent.

The ability of persistent toxic chemicals to cross the placenta, to bioaccumulate, and to persist in the environment for long periods of time poses a health threat to individuals as well as to a wide range of species including fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals.[48] Subtle effects have been observed at extremely low concentrations. Interference with the endocrine system—which regulates hormonal activity in people and wildlife—is the effect most frequently associated with synthetic organic contaminants found in many industrial and agricultural chemicals. By interfering with cell-to-cell communication, mimicking natural hormones, and triggering wrong biological responses, synthetic compounds disrupt normal hormonal functions and cause potentially life-threatening and irreversible neurobehavioural or developmental damage.[49] Documented effects on wildlife include immune and thyroid system disorders, disrupted sexual development (feminization of males and masculinization of females), decreased fertility and birth defects.[50]

Table 7 lists the toxins most frequently found in the effluents of Quebec STPs, as well as some of their potential health and environmental hazards. Table 8 gives information on the toxins found specifically in the effluent of the MUC STP in 1992-1993. These two tables make it clear that some substances are problematic. Although the hard data for the concentration of  PCBs and PAHs in the influent and effluent of the MUC STP are not available, their concentration in the effluent are respectively 1.8 and 180 times higher than that found elsewhere in the St. Lawrence river.[51]

In addition to the toxic materials frequently found in treated effluents, organic substances and their related pathogenic micro-organisms also flourish. Bacteria, parasites, and viruses found in human and animal stools, i.e. in wastewater, cause many serious diseases such as hepatitis, myocardia, and meningitis and are implicated in infections such as chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes (see Table 9). Less serious illnesses such as diarrhea, skin and ear infections also ensue. Because of their relatively low grade symptomatology and self-curing nature, most of these infections are not reported to public health authorities.[52] Sewage-based micro-organisms, however, could well be the source of infections found primarily in particular people or in a certain region.[53]

The parasites and viruses found in sewage effluents are transmitted by a fecal-oral  pathway. Since both have a low minimal infective dose, the risk of infection is elevated when even small amounts of contaminated waters are ingested. Children swimming in contaminated waters are thus more at risk of being infected since they usually ingest more water than do adults.[54] A study conducted at 10 beaches in Ontario concluded that swimmers were 2.4 times more likely to become sick than were non-swimmers, even though fecal coliform levels were well within provincial guidelines. As Ontario’s guidelines are stricter than Quebec’s, the hazards of swimming may be even greater in the latter province.[55]

Sewage can also contaminate drinking water supplies. Data collected from 1985 to 1992 by the Quebec Environmental Health Committee estimate that there were on average 8.5 water-linked microbiological contamination episodes that affected approximately 587 people a year.[56]

A comparison of these figures with data from other occidental countries of the Northern Hemisphere, where a gastroenteritis rate between 0.66 and 1 episode per person per year prevails, and where contaminated water is suspected in 1 to 33 per cent of the cases, suggests that Quebec has grossly underestimated the number of people suffering from gastroenteritis caused by microbiologically contaminated water.[57] Since Quebec’s infrastructure and wastewater treatment is similar to those found in these other countries, its gastroenteritis rate is unlikely to differ significantly. It is therefore likely that every year, the reported numbers of gastroenteritis represent only 0.03 to 1.3 per cent of the actual cases. 

The consumption of seafood harvested in a zone contaminated by sewage can also trigger an infection.[62] Bacteria discharged in municipal wastewater are implicated in about half of shellfish closures on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.[63] In Quebec, 34 of the 190 soft clam and blue mussel harvesting zones are presently closed due to contamination by municipal sewage.[64]

The sewage treatment process only partially eliminates disease causing micro-organisms. The percent removed depends on the microbial type, the type of treatment applied, the length of the treatment, and especially the operational conditions of the STP.[65] Primary treatment is extremely inefficient at removing pathogens.[66] They either settle in the sludge, becoming a disposal problem, or simply flow straight through the STP into the river or lake.

Secondary treatment removes some bacterial pathogens, but is usually inefficient at inactivating parasites and viruses. Non-disinfected secondary effluent poses an extreme health risk if the waters are to be used for recreational activities, shellfish raising, or the irrigation of crops that will be eaten raw.[67] In 1993, a mere four per cent of Quebec’s STPs were mechanically disinfecting their effluent after secondary treatment (see Appendix A). Another 73 per cent of Quebec’s STPs were naturally degrading micro-organisms. Together, they have the capacity to disinfect less than 22 per cent of the province’s total wastewater.

Only at the tertiary level there is enough of the organic load and turbidity removed to allow for an optimum disinfection process.[68] Tertiary STPs can inactivate between 99.5 and 99.9 per cent of micro-organisms.[69] Unfortunately, not a single municipality in Quebec is equipped with tertiary wastewater treatment facilities.

Laws, Agreements and Their Enforcement

The strict enforcement of numerous pieces of provincial and federal legislation, many of which are very powerful, could ensure that the pollution caused by municipal STPs be kept to a minimum. However, the lax enforcement of these statutes has ensured that municipal polluters go unpunished and that unnecessary environmental degradation persists.

Civil Code of Quebec: This provincial statute, enacted in 1994, is derived from the previous Civil Code of Lower Canada, written in 1866 and inspired by the French Civil Code of 1804. It contains principles that have come out of relevant court decisions.

Several provisions of the Civil Code could prevent the degradation of Quebec waterways. Sections 979 to 982 of the code outline the rights and duties of riparian owners—those who own or occupy land beside lakes and rivers. Section 981 states that riparian owners can use the water flowing by their property as long as it is returned to its regular course “not substantially changed in quality or quantity.” It adds that no riparian owners may by their use of the water prevent any other riparian owners from exercising the same right.[70]

In 1988, Claude Champs, a riparian owner operating a camp ground, filed a lawsuit against three municipalities and a hospital for discharging their raw sewage into the Rouge River, thus contravening the Civil Code of Lower Canada.[71] The polluted water coming from these four sources forced him to close his public beach. The judge hearing the case found that the defendants were interfering with the plaintiff’s riparian rights, and required them to pay him $46,000 in compensation.[72] This decision is now being appealed.[73]

Section 982 of the Civil Code provides riparians with the right to an injunction to stop pollution. It reads as follows: “a person having a right to use a spring, lake, sheet of water, underground stream or any running water may, to prevent the water from being polluted or used up, require the destruction or modification of any works by which the water is being polluted or dried up.”[74] Unfortunately, the section is prefaced with a severe limitation: It applies only “unless it is contrary to the general interest.”[75]

Although nobody has yet sued a sewage polluter under Section 982, which entered the Civil Code in 1994, experience suggests that sewage polluters, if challenged, will argue that their activities are in the general interest, protecting themselves from the otherwise powerful provisions in the section.[76]

The Environment Quality Act: Enacted in 1972, the Environment Quality Act is the most important piece of Quebec legislation addressing issues such as water and air pollution, waste disposal, hazardous waste, and contaminated soils.[77] Five sections of the act are especially important as far as water quality is concerned: Section 20 formulates a sweeping pollution prohibition; Section 31 allows the Minister of the Environment to issue discharge certificates;[78] Section 32 lists the waterworks activities which require provincial authorization; and Section 34 grants the Minister of the Environment the right to issue ordinances regarding the management of wastewater.[79]

In two brief paragraphs, Section 20 of division IV formulates a triple prohibition: No one may discharge into the environment a contaminant in a greater quantity or concentration than that provided for by regulation; no one may discharge into the environment a contaminant, the presence of which in the environment is prohibited by regulation; and no one may discharge into the environment a contaminant, the presence of which is likely to affect the life, health, safety, welfare or comfort of human beings, or to cause damage to or otherwise impair the quality of the soil, vegetation, wildlife or property.

In case of violation of Section 20, the act sets the maximum fines for violators at $20,000 for a first offence and $40,000 for subsequent offences.[80] In all cases, a one-year imprisonment can also be ordered, conjointly or not with the fines. For corporate prosecutions, the maximum fines are $250,000 for the first offence, $1 million for a second offence, and more than $1 million for additional offences.[81]

Unfortunately, two of Section 20’s three provisions do not prohibit sewage pollution. Because the provincial government has not yet introduced regulations concerning the discharge of municipal wastewater, the two first parts of the section do not apply to municipal sewage. Nevertheless, the government or an individual could take action in a civil or criminal court against a municipal sewage polluter contravening the third part of Section 20.

While the Civil Code applies only to riparian owners, the Environment Quality Act allows Quebec residents who “frequent” a given place to launch a civil lawsuit against anybody, including a municipality, who interferes with their “right to a healthy environment and to its protection, and to the protection of the living species inhabiting it.”[82] A Quebec Superior Court judge could prohibit any activities contravening a section of the act, thus interfering with that right, and ask the perpetrators to pay damages.[83]

An individual could lay criminal charges against a municipality polluting a water body with its untreated or improperly treated sewage for contravening the third provision in Section 20.[84] However, the costs of private prosecutions (approximately $25,000), the fact that any fine collected would go to provincial coffers, and the difficulties of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that an STP’s discharges are harming humans, wildlife or the environment, have tended to discourage citizens from prosecuting municipalities. In fact, never has an STP been prosecuted for violating Section 20.[85]

Section 31 of the Environment Quality Act empowers the Minister of the Environment to issue discharge certificates to municipalities that operate wastewater treatment works.[86] These certificates, called “depollution attestations,” specify the nature, origin, concentration, quantity and quality of every contaminant released into the environment. Moreover, the minister may modify the contaminant discharge standards referred to in the section if these standards:

do not adequately ensure that the environment affected by the municipal wastewater treatment works is suitable for the normal development of human beings and plant and animal life, or do not adequately protect human beings and animal and plant life from unacceptable risks imputable to the acute or chronic toxicity of any contaminant or to its carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic or synergistic effect.[87]
The issuing of a discharge certificate, however, is based on a provincial regulation controlling wastewater discharge of a municipal STP. Since this regulation does not yet exist, “depollution attestations” have yet to be issued.

The first paragraph of Section 32 of the Environment Quality Act mentions that no sewage system can be built without the authorization of the Minister of the Environment. This enables the government to oversee the construction of wastewater treatment equipment, meeting site-specific needs. By acting as a basic permitting mechanism for the construction of waterworks, approved and supervised by the government, Section 32 de facto provides for indirect control of the discharge of polluted water into the environment. It does not, however, allow the MEF to set requirements for the operation of an STP: It only says that the system being built has been approved by MEF engineers, and that it will most likely meet the wastewater treatment objectives mentioned in the authorization. Unfortunately, Section 32 has one perverse consequence: Having approved the installation of an STP, the MEF finds it difficult to prosecute a municipality whose effluents would be violating Section 20 of the act.

Lastly, under Section 34 of the Environment Quality Act, the Minister of the Environment has the power to issue orders regarding the management of wastewater. Although the main intent of this article is to ensure an adequate supply of drinkable water and the collection of wastewater, it could also be used by the minister to order a municipality to clean up its sewage properly before releasing it in a watercourse. Never has a minister used this power for this purpose.[88]

Municipal By-laws: In the name of Peace, Order, and Good government, a municipality is empowered to regulate any matter as long as it is of municipal jurisdiction. Since municipalities own, maintain, and operate sewage systems, they can regulate the use of wastewater infrastructures, and thus create municipal sewer-use by-laws.[89]

The only exceptions to this rule are the 27 municipalities constituting the MUC. All powers relating to wastewater disposal in Montreal and the surrounding areas have been delegated to the MUC and are spelled out in By-law 87, “Respecting waste water disposal in sewer systems and waterways.” The by-law prohibits discharges of certain substances into sewers and sets limits on the discharge of metals and toxic substances that are only partially removed by the STP.[90]

A permit system regulating industrial dischargers is also established by this by-law. In 1994, however, only 150 of the MUC’s 800 most polluting industries had received their required permit.[91] Since 1987, the 800 industries have together faced 1,500 notices of infraction and 300 prosecutions, but a cumulative fine of only $500,000.[92] These lenient penalties ensure that many industries continue to break the law by dumping into sewers illegal substances or illegal concentrations of allowed substances.

Outside the MUC, each one of the 785 municipalities participating in a Clean Water program was required to adopt a sewer-use by-law. The MEF imposed this condition to protect its STPs against harmful substances that could interfere with their efficacy and to increase the likelihood of municipalities meeting discharge objectives.[93] None of the 110 municipalities with a sewerage system outside of the Clean Water programs has yet adopted a sewer-use by-law.[94]

Regulations under the Clean Water Programs: Under PAEQ and PADEM, effluent discharge limits for each STP are written down in a Book of Requirements which the municipality is supposed to honour by operating its STP to the maximum capacity permitted by the technology in place. However, the absence of enforcement provisions in either the contracts or the Book of Requirements regulations makes it difficult for the MEF to act against a municipality that decides not to hand in the results of its effluent analysis, as specified in the Book of Requirements, or that hands in very bad ones.[95] The MEF could very well lay charges for breach of the Clean Water program’s contracts, but it would have to explain why it had permitted the installation of equipment that did not allow the municipality to adequately treat its sewage. The MEF has never taken legal action against delinquent municipalities.

Municipalities receiving subsidies under PAEQ also pledged to sign agreements with their major industrial users to ensure that they do not overload the STPs.[96] Each agreement addresses the character and monitoring of the industry’s discharges, the required upgrading of the STP, and the sharing of the added costs.[97] But these agreements are not without flaws, the most obvious being that industries themselves are the only parties responsible for monitoring what they discharge into sewers. Indeed, industries sample and analyse their effluent, and then send the results to the MEF which decides if they are satisfactory.

In most countries, another monitoring mechanism, usually a sampling team, spot-checks self-monitoring industries, validating their information and imposing sanctions in cases of fraud.[98] For budgetary reasons, Quebec abolished the sampling team monitoring industries outside of the MUC in 1994, making the MEF “probably the only ministry of the environment of the Occidental world without a sampling team.”[99]

Within the MUC, electronic sampling devices hidden in sewers detect illegal industrial dumping as soon as surveillance loosens up, and demonstrate the importance of a reliable monitoring mechanism.[100] Because municipal STPs are not designed to treat toxins, and because STPs’ effluents (outside of the MUC) are not analysed for toxins, what comes out of the industry too often flows straight through STPs and enters the environment.

Federal Fisheries Act: The Fisheries Act is the federal government’s strongest law against water pollution. Under Section 36(3), offenders can be fined up to $1 million for every day that they deposit a “deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish.”[101] Up to three years imprisonment can also imposed for repeated offences.[102]

Although STP effluents are known to be highly toxic and to contain disease-causing micro-organisms, municipal sewage polluters in Quebec seem to enjoy complete immunity from prosecution. In fact, none have ever been prosecuted for sewage effluent that violates the Fisheries Act.[103]

Since Section 36(3) of the Fisheries Act prohibits water pollution that is apparently already covered by Section 20 of Quebec’s Environment Quality Act, federal officials have delegated the administration and enforcement of water quality control to provincial authorities.[104] The federal government may have failed to notice the absence of a regulation regarding the discharge of municipal sewage, and the impossibility of enforcing Section 20. Alternatively, it may have simply decided not to enforce the Fisheries Act in Quebec. Federal officials’ fear of causing political friction has often been evoked in justifying the non-enforcement of the Fisheries Act in the province.[105]

Canada Water Act: This federal statute entitles the government to designate any water as a “water quality management area,” and to use extensive powers to maintain the quality of water in that area. Once again, this part of the act has never been used to curb sewage pollution.[106]


Although sewage treatment in Quebec has improved considerably since the 1970s, dramatic action must still be taken in order to prevent further degradation and to allow the recovery of the province’s lakes and rivers. Indeed, as the volume of sewage increases, as STPs exceed their designed operating capacities, and as older systems deteriorate, Quebec’s overburdened STPs run the risk of being further stressed, jeopardizing the progress that has been made until now.

The three levels of government must utilize improved technology, implement better, stricter regulations and enforcement, and introduce incentives to encourage citizens and corporations to restore and preserve Quebec’s waterways.

Wastewater Regulation: Quebec’s regulatory void has resulted in a political environment where “apology is policy,” and where the provincial government can at best try to convince delinquent municipalities to do better.[107] Although the Clean Water programs’ financial incentives convinced many municipalities to equip themselves with STPs, both PAEQ and PADEM lack a regulatory framework to ensure that STPs respect wastewater discharge limits.

A regulation controlling effluent quality is currently being drafted. Regulators should ensure that it is in place well before the year 2005, when the first municipalities to join the Clean Water program will have been reimbursed for the cost of building their STPs, reducing the province’s leverage over the municipalities. Regulations should make it clear that if caught, sewage polluters will have to pay severe penalties for breaking the law. The current subsidy system, although well-intentioned, sends the wrong message to municipal sewage polluters—that they have the right to pollute, unless the province pays them to stop.

Just as the financial, administrative and environmental obligations agreed on by the provincial government and municipalities are laid out in the convention they both sign, rules explaining what happens in case of breach of contract should also be present. However, no such provisions have been included in the agreements.[108] Future contracts should contain a clause addressing this issue.

Improved Technology: STPs should be designed to preserve the diversity and productivity of ecosystems, to reduce public health hazards, and to permit desired uses of lakes and rivers. Often, only tertiary treatment with disinfection can accomplish these ends. Existing primary and secondary plants should be upgraded. As it makes more economic sense to initially build a tertiary STP than to later upgrade a primary or secondary STP, new plants should provide tertiary treatment.[109]

Special attention should be directed to ensuring that sewage networks are in good condition in order to reduce infiltration of surface and groundwater into sewer pipes. Fixing the leaking sewage pipes throughout the MUC would reduce by 35 to 50 per cent the volume of wastewater directed to the area’s STP.[110] Less wastewater would foster increased treatment efficiency. It would also allow for the construction of a much smaller plant which could then offer a higher level of treatment.

The antiquated system of combined sewers still in place in many cities should gradually be separated to prevent combined sewer overflows. With proper monitoring, most toxic first-flush stormwater can be shunted into unused pipes or storage tanks until it can be treated. As well, alternative treatment technologies like marshes should be considered as they require fewer financial resources and naturally achieve levels of treatment comparable to that of conventional STPs.

Better Source Control: It is easier to deal with pollution at its source than at an STP. Source control is generally both more effective and less expensive than attempts to eliminate toxins during treatment or to rehabilitate damaged ecosystems. Business and government should develop technological and regulatory methods, respectively, preventing industrial pollutants from entering the sewerage system.

An estimated 15 per cent of all regulated pollutants come from households.[111] Therefore, changing behaviour at the household level is essential. The harmful environmental effects of hazardous substances, proper disposal practices, as well as environmentally friendly alternatives should be targeted in educational campaigns.

Comprehensive Monitoring: Monitoring is an essential component of a source control program. Periodically monitoring STPs’ effluents would provide information on the toxic substances dumped by households, businesses, institutions, and industries in each community. Stricter monitoring of industrial sewer polluters should also be put into place. Sampling teams hired to spot-check industries and/or “intelligent” electronic sampling devices located in sewers would validate the results sent by industries to the MEF and would ensure that negligent industries could be prosecuted. 

Strict Enforcement: In the U.S. in 1977, less than half of the 3,731 municipal STPs that had received federal financial assistance to construct wastewater treatment facilities were in compliance with discharge requirements.[112] Following the enactment in 1984 of a National Municipal Policy (NMP), a list of non-complying facilities was developed, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the states took judicial action against the delinquent STPs. By the 1988 deadline for achieving required treatment, over 71 per cent of these facilities came into compliance. The NMP brought the total population served by major treatment plants in compliance to 90 per cent, resulting in huge environmental benefits.

Quebec should adopt a similarly strong enforcement policy, dealing with source control and STPs’ discharges. Although there is not yet a provincial regulation concerning municipal sewage disposal, the existing contracts negotiated under the Clean Water programs should be strictly enforced. The provincial government should make it clear that a municipality cannot justify polluting on the basis that it does not have enough money to properly treat its sewage. As municipalities have the statutory mandate to provide sewage treatment, as well as the ability to generate funds through taxation, they should adopt the “polluters pay” principle, where everybody contributing to pollution pays for the cleanup costs.

Water/Wastewater Metering and Pricing Reform: In 1991, Canadian households that paid volume-based water rates used nearly 40 per cent less water than households charged a flat rate.[113] Unfortunately, in 1993, 90 per cent of Quebec’s population still payed ridiculously low flat rates for water supply and wastewater treatment. Charges varied between $7.00 and $19.00 a month, by far underestimating water’s intrinsic value and real servicing cost.[114]

For Quebec municipal governments to implement effective water pricing reforms based on volume, full water metering is required. Only when residential, commercial, and industrial consumers realize the true costs of their water use and wastewater generation will they have a financial incentive to reduce their use of water. Reduced wastewater flows would alleviate strains on STPs, 56 per cent of which are already operating at over 90 per cent of their designed wastewater flow capacity.[115] This would increase STPs’ efficiency, which would improve effluent quality.

Recognition of Property Rights: Enforcing the centuries-old riparian rights provisions of the Civil Code would empower citizens to take sewage polluters to court when the provincial government refuses to do so. In the rest of Canada, where the English Common Law replaces the Civil Code of Quebec, similar property rights provisions have worked in favour of the environment more than once. In two Ontario cases in the 1950s, for example, courts issued injunctions against polluting STPs that violated the rights of downstream riparians.[116]

Unfortunately, the rights conferred in the Civil Code are overridden by the provincial Crown’s legislative attempts to control STP effluent quality.[117] In approving STPs under Section 32 of the Environment Quality Act, for example, the provincial government overrides the Civil Code’s pollution prohibitions. Section 32 should be amended to specify that nothing in it legalizes nuisances, or that the government approves STPs only to the extent that they do not violate others’ property rights. Similarly, amending Section 982 of the Civil Code to eliminate the general interest clause would facilitate individual enforcement of riparian rights.

Privatization and Regulation of Wastewater Utilities: It has been estimated that the deterioration of wastewater assets, their deferred maintenance, unreliable water quality, inadequate and inefficient wastewater collection and treatment, underpricing in services, plus the cost of meeting increasing standards for water supply and wastewater treatment will require municipal water and wastewater utilities to almost double their investments in physical plant by 2015.[118] As municipal governments face citizen uproar when they raise taxes, and as both federal and provincial governments are financially strapped, alternative methods of financing major capital investments, such as capturing private sector resources and incentives, must be considered.

The private sector can provide most municipal services at a 10 to 30 per cent lower cost than municipalities can, due to timing and construction cost efficiencies, operational advantages, and tax benefits.[119] Furthermore, privatization can improve infrastructures without an investment of scarce tax revenues, reduce direct political interference with economic decision making, drive technological innovation, and, by reforming the pricing system, increase consumers’ awareness of the true costs of providing services.

To protect consumers and the environment, it is essential to straitjacket privatized utilities with strong and effective legislation enforced by regulatory boards. In the U.S., Britain, and even in Canada, the privatization and regulation of assets and services such as transit systems, airport operations, and water and wastewater treatment has had a surprisingly positive effect on environmental protection without pricing abuses by utilities.[120]

Privatizing wastewater utilities would remove the conflict of interest that exists between the provincial government, which finances and regulates sewage treatment works, and the municipal governments which operate them. By putting the onus on private enterprises to run and operate STPs, the provincial government could finally do what only it can do: regulate others and enforce the law. Privatization would allow the Crown to order an STP to upgrade its equipment without fear of being asked to finance the improvement. Liberated from its financial constraints, the provincial government could freely sue a private wastewater utility that does not respect the wastewater discharges specified in the Book of Requirements or in the upcoming Environmental Quality Act regulation.

Were the province to control directly private wastewater utilities with strong regulations preventing the erosion of environmental standards and pricing abuses, Section 32 of the Environment Quality Act would become obsolete, clearing the way for the full implementation of the Civil Code’s potent sections. Working together, an empowered citizenry and government with free hands would be much more effective at enforcing property rights and at applying provincial regulations to private operators. The promises of financial returns would be the carrot motivating privateers to do a good job; the risk of both private lawsuits and government sanctions would be the stick. Individual liberties would be restored, and our lakes and rivers would be protected from sewage pollution.

Appendix A


One thought on “Sewage Treatment and Disposal in Quebec: Environmental Effects

  1. How can these towns pollute this way and allowed to escape prosecution. This is a ticking time bomb. I pray that justice will be served.

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