Municipal Wastewater Pollution in British Columbia

Martin Nantel
May 1996

This report by Martin Nantel examines the environmental damage caused by the discharge of treated and untreated sewage into B.C. waters, paying special attention to the threats posed to the Fraser River salmon. It also addresses governments’ failure to enforce the legislation intended to regulate sewage treatment plants and recommends a number of measures to alleviate sewage pollution in the province.

To read the PDF version, click here.

In Brief:

■ Each and every day, residents and businesses discharge over 1.7 billion litres of treated and untreated sewage into the receiving waters of British Columbia.

■ 4% of British Columbians live in at least 13 municipalities that merely pretreat sewage;
44% in 28 municipalities are serviced by primary treatment only;
20% in 91 municipalities are serviced by secondary treatment;
4% in 10 municipalities are serviced by tertiary treatment;
the remaining live in residences that are hooked up to septic systems, or live in unincorporated communities, and may or may not be serviced by sewage treatment plants (STPs).

■ Only 45 of B.C.’s 116 municipal STPs disinfect their effluent. Of those, 42 STPs still use chlorine despite chlorine’s harmful environmental effects. A dechlorination process prior to discharging the effluent into the environment is available at only 22 STPs.

■ More than half of the B.C. facilities are either known to be out of compliance for biological oxygen demand, total suspended solids, flows, or overflows, or, as defined by B.C. Environment, are deemed to be out of compliance for not submitting the required monitoring data to the province.

■ In the Greater Vancouver Regional District, 53 emergency outfalls discharging as often as 200 times a year flush 62 billion litres of untreated sewage and toxic waste into the Fraser River and Burrard Inlet.

■ Effluents containing raw or improperly treated sewage are both environmental and public health threats:

  •  In addition to degrading and destroying aquatic habitat, sewage pollution causes both acute and chronic toxicity in aquatic organisms. The Fraser River salmon are especially at risk;
  • It is also a health hazard for people swimming at beaches that have been  contaminated by sewage effluent. 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.

■ As of April 1995, 10,000 hectares of intertidal and subtidal shellfish harvesting areas were closed owing to bacteriological contamination by municipal sewage outfalls. These closures represent a public health threat, and cause significant economic loss to the shellfish industry. For example, 23% of Baynes Sound’s total farming area has been closed, since 1993, due to bacteriological contamination. Baynes Sound farmers face additional pressures as wider closures are imminent.

■  The lax enforcement of many powerful regional, provincial, and federal laws, as well as the erosion of riparian rights to clean water, have ensured that municipal sewage polluters go mostly unpunished and that unnecessary environmental degradation persists. In the past six years, B.C. Environment has convicted only two non-complying STP permittees, for a total fine of $15,000. Since 1977, the federal government has filed only three prosecutions against municipal sewage offenders.

■  As B.C.’s population grows, as the volume of sewage increases, as STPs exceed their designated operating capacities, and as older system deteriorate, B.C.’s STPs run the risk of being further stressed. The three levels of government should:

  • Upgrade the existing STPs so they can provide tertiary treatment with an environmentally-friendly disinfection process.
  •  Accelerate the separation of combined sewers.
  • Introduce full water metering and implement effective water-pricing reforms. Reduced wastewater flows would alleviate stains on STPs, and would improve effluent quality.
  • 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.
  • Adopt strong enforcement policies with severe penalties in dealing with negligent STP operators.
  • Allow private prosecutions against municipal sewage polluters to proceed without interference from the Attorney General.
  • Amend the Waste Management Act to specify that B.C. Environment approves STP pollution only to the extent that it does not violate others’ property rights.
  • 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 standards.

Full Report

Introduction

The Fraser River Basin produces more salmon than any other river system in the world. Five species of salmon and 80 other species of fish, as well as 79 species of birds, rely on the Lower Fraser and its estuary for their critical habitats and migratory routes.[1] The Fraser River produces 66 per cent of all B.C. sockeye caught, 60 per cent of the total B.C. catch of pink salmon, 16 per cent of the chinook, 11 per cent of the coho, and 8 per cent of the chum. The annual economic value of the combined commercial, native, and recreational salmon fisheries on the Fraser River is over $300 million.[2]

The sword of Damocles, however, may well be hanging over the Fraser River. After more than 450 million years of assimilating natural liquid waste, the receiving environment of the delta that is now Greater Vancouver has within the past 60 years succumbed to elevated levels of contamination. Concern over the possible effects of this pollution on fish and wildlife is growing exponentially. Combined with the effects of overfishing and the elimination of estuary rearing areas by a host of developments, severe pollution of the Fraser River may erode the foundations of its salmon fishery.

Although numerous sources of pollution historically contributed to this deplorable state, effluents from sewage treatment plants (STPs) are by far the greatest source of contaminants to the Fraser River, contributing over 460 million litres of wastewater every day to the Lower Fraser alone.[3] Archaic sewer emergency outfalls annually discharge an additional 22.4 billion litres of raw sewage into the Fraser River.[4]

Nor is municipal sewage treatment and disposal a “clean” business on a provincial level. Each and every day, residents and businesses discharge over 1.7 billion litres of treated and untreated sewage into the receiving waters of “Beautiful British Columbia”—enough to fill B.C. Place Stadium 1.3 times a day.[5] Because these enormous quantities of wastewater contain many substances that are hazardous to aquatic life and public health, it is important to address the province’s ongoing municipal sewage pollution.

This report first examines the various types of wastewater treatment, the performance of B.C.’s STPs, and the environmental and health risks of treated and untreated sewage. It then addresses governments’ failure to enforce the rules purported to regulate STPs, and ends with a series of recommendations to alleviate sewage pollution in the province.

Part I: Sewage Pollution

The amalgam known as sewage contains far more than just human excrement and urine. Condoms, tampons, and 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 is added urban runoff—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, two measurements taken in an effluent sample are generally analysed. These are of the total suspended solids and the biological oxygen demand. In certain cases, nutrient content and fecal coliforms in the treated effluents will also be analysed.

Total suspended solids (TSS) refer to the amount of undissolved solids in the sewage. Excess TSS can block sufficient sunlight from reaching underwater plant life, thus preventing normal growth and productivity. This can affect aquatic organisms feeding on these plants. Excess TSS 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 TSS and enter the waters of British Columbia 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 TSS in the effluent and indicates inadequate treatment. It also means that there is less oxygen available for fish and marine organisms, which may well die if the BOD5 reaches very high levels. Certain species of non-tolerant organisms also abandon these waters.

Phosphorus and nitrogen are essential nutrients to plant life, but when found in excess quantities, they can stimulate excessive and undesirable plant growth such as algal blooms, a phenomenon referred to as eutrophication. Unsightly growths of algae are a nuisance to boaters and bathers. A larger concern, however, is the effect eutrophication has on aquatic life. The increased number of oxygen-consuming micro-organisms required to decompose these aquatic plants can create large fluctuations in the dissolved oxygen in the receiving waters—oxygen that is vital to fish and other aquatic species. Portage Inlet, in the Victoria area, lost its population of native oysters when two STPs’ discharges depleted the dissolved oxygen in poorly-flushed coastal waters.[6]

If provincial regulators determine that an STP’s effluent adversely affects the receiving environment, STP operators may have to remove some of the nutrients and monitor the levels of phosphorus and nitrogen present in the effluent. Generally, when an STP’s effluent discharges into freshwater, phosphorus is measured as it is the limiting nutrient to plant growth. In most estuaries and coastal waters, however, nitrogen levels are measured since it is nitrogen that controls primary production and eutrophication.

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. If the feces is from a human infected with a gastrointestinal illness such as typhoid, salmonella, or hepatitis, persons drinking or swimming in the polluted water could also become ill.

Technology Used for Treating Municipal Sewage

An estimated 3,668,400 people reside in British Columbia.[7] Of those, an estimated 936,000 live in some 375,000 residences that are hooked up to septic systems. Approximately 153,600 more live in at least 13 municipalities, including Victoria, that merely pretreat their sewage. During pretreatment, sewage is either chopped up, a process referred to as comminution, or, more often, screened to remove large debris and to make it “look better.” It is then directly flushed into the coastal waters of British Columbia. Pretreatment does not remove any significant amount of TSS, BOD5, nutrients, bacteria, or toxins present in raw sewage. The resulting effluent still poses environmental and health hazards.

As for the remaining 2.6 million British Columbians, they are serviced by one of 116 STPs, which basically perform one or more of three levels of sewage treatment.

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.

A conventional primary plant removes 25 to 40 per cent of the BOD5 and 40 to 60 per cent of the TSS.[8] Fecal coliforms are reduced by approximately 50 per cent.[9] Dangerous water-soluble organic and inorganic substances are not affected by primary treatment.

Twenty-eight municipalities in British Columbia are hooked up to 13 primary STPs servicing more than 1.6 million citizens. British Columbia’s primary STPs treat about 61 per cent of the province’s treated wastewater.

Secondary Treatment: The biological activity characterizing this type of treatment further removes BOD5 and TSS. 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, does 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 TSS, and inactivates 90 to 99 per cent of the fecal coliform bacteria.[10] Nutrient removal can be an additional component of the treatment. As of  today, 85 secondary STPs service about 740,500 British Columbians, and treat 28 per cent of the province’s wastewater directed to STPs.

If STP effluents are sufficiently clean, environmental benefits can spring from creative disposal methods. Since 1984, the City of Vernon has discharged none of its four billion litres of secondary treated wastewater into Okanagan Lake. Rather, the City uses its effluent to irrigate some 2,000 acres of agricultural and sylvicultural lands. As Vernon has a very dry climate and a scarcity of water, crop irrigation has proven a very effective way to conserve water and to prevent the deposition of phosphorus in the local waters.[11]

Tertiary Treatment: This process uses a mechanical or a sand filtration to provide a similar but more thorough treatment than secondary processes. Nutrient removal is often added after this stage as it is most effective then and further reduces the load to be discharged into the environment. Ten STPs presently provide tertiary treatment to approximately 157,200 people, but together they treat only six per cent of the wastewater directed to STPs.

Table 1 lists the various types of sewage treatment technologies used in B.C. in 1996, the number of STPs, and the population and municipalities served by each.

Table 1: Municipalities, STPs, and population served, 1996[12]

Types of Treatment

   Municipalities

    STPs

Population

         #

       %

        #

     %

       #

         %

Pretreatment
screens

9

6.34

4

3.45

133,939

5.00

comminution

4

2.82

4

3.45

19,672

0.73

Subtotal

13

9.16

8

6.90

153,611

5.73

Primary (sedimentation)
septic tank

3

2.11

3

2.59

1,600

0.06

spirogester

3

2.11

3

2.59

7,600

0.28

conventional

22

15.50

7

6.03

1,619,001

60.42

Subtotal

28

19.72

13

11.21

1,628,201

60.76

Secondary (biological activity)
aerated lagoon

37

26.05

36

31.03

174,227

6.50

facultative lagoon

5

3.52

5

4.31

12,005

0.45

oxidation ditch

8

5.63

8

6.90

26,628

0.99

activated sludge

27

19.01

25

21.55

325,760

12.16

trickling filter

6

4.23

3

2.59

155,000

5.78

R.B.C.

2

1.41

2

1.72

13,250

0.49

other

6

4.23

6

5.17

33,631

1.26

Subtotal

91

64.08

85

73.27

740,501

27.64

Tertiary (filtration)
natural

9

6.34

9

7.76

108,201

4.04

mechanical

1

0.70

1

0.86

49,000

1.83

Subtotal

10

7.04

10

8.62

157,201

5.87

Total

142

100.00

116

100.00

2,679,514

100.00

Disinfection Process

Adding a disinfection process to wastewater treatment will help eliminate many pathogenic micro-organisms, thus making water safer for recreational activities. Over the past century, chlorination has become the most common method of disinfecting wastewater effluents in Canada and in the U.S. This use has come about due to chlorine’s powerful disinfecting capabilities, ease of application, and low cost.[13]

However, unless chlorinated effluents undergo a final dechlorination process prior to discharge into the receiving waters, they adversely affect aquatic life (see discussion below). Unfortunately, not only does British Columbia disinfect the effluents of only 45 of its 116 municipal STPs, but it uses chlorine at all but three STPs which use ozone. Only 22 STPs dechlorinate their final effluent prior to discharging it into the environment.[14]

Performance of Sewage Treatment Plants

The B.C. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks tolerates a 100-metre buffer area around STP outfalls where effluents are allowed to mix with the surrounding waters. Within these areas—referred to as mixing zones—Water Quality Objectives of the Waste Management Branch need not be met.[15] Although B.C. Environment does not allow toxic STP effluents to be acutely lethal to fish within the mixing zones, it does turn a blind eye to the harmful effects of TSS, BOD5, excessive nutrient loadings, oils and greases, and an unbalanced PH.

B.C. Environment issues semi-annual “non-compliance/pollution concern lists.” Among other things, these lists identify municipal STPs whose effluents fail to meet water quality requirements outside of the mixing zones. The Greater Vancouver Regional District’s (GVRD) Annacis Island and Lulu Island STPs are chronic offenders and have appeared on 11 and 8,  respectively, of the 12 non-compliance lists.[16] In the seven lists published between April 1, 1993, and September 30, 1995, the Annacis STP has been listed significantly out of compliance for toxicity limits 25 out of 30 times.[17]

However, because B.C. Environment only lists “significant” non-compliance, many delinquent STP operators do not appear on the list. A study conducted by the Save Georgia Strait Alliance concluded that more than half the B.C. facilities are either known to be out of compliance for BOD5, TSS, flows, or overflows, or, as defined by B.C. Environment, deemed to be out of compliance for not submitting the required monitoring data to the province.[18]

In addition, some municipalities which may well be in compliance with the terms of their permits may not have to respect standards that reflect sound environmental practices. The Greater Victoria Area, for example, has been in compliance with its permit for many years, but still spews raw sewage into the ocean through its two sewer outfalls.

Combined Sewer Overflows and Bypasses

Up until the 1940s, municipalities constructed sewerage systems carrying both sewage and stormwater to STPs. However, during a heavy rainstorm, when a sudden increase in water volume overloads such a system, the extra water cannot be handled by an STP and is directly discharged into a watercourse through one of B.C.’s many emergency outfalls. This phenomenon is commonly referred as a combined sewer overflow (CSO).

Approximately 80 per cent of the residents of British Columbia who are serviced by combined sewers live in Vancouver. Close to three-quarters of Vancouver and New Westminster, and a small portion of northwest Burnaby have combined sewers.[19] In total, 53 emergency outfalls discharging as frequently as 200 times a year result in 62 billion litres of untreated sewage and toxic waste flushing into the Fraser River and Burrard Inlet—enough to fill B.C. Place Stadium more than 48 times every year.[20]

In addition to spoiling the aesthetic appeal of natural surroundings, CSOs’ potentially detrimental effects include risk to human health and to aquatic ecosystems, interference with human activities such as swimming, and harm to the tourism industry.[21] Monitoring is ineffectual because testing is done only for fecal coliforms; toxic wastes, viruses, and other pathogens are not tested. Moreover, tests are not done often enough to coincide with CSO events.

The direct discharge, or “bypass,” of raw sewage by STPs into receiving waters is allowed by B.C. Environment 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 storms 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 B.C. ministry of environment does not compile data on how much sewage is bypassed or allowed to overflow in a year.[22] However, bypassed and overflowed wastewaters certainly represent a very large load of toxins and pathogenic micro-organisms entering the environment.

The Impacts of Sewage on Fish

As described above, sewage pollution harms fish and other aquatic life by degrading and destroying aquatic habitat. In addition to destroying fish spawning zones, the accumulation of excessive organic matter contributes to a reduction of plant growth and productivity, thus adversely affecting the aquatic organisms feeding on these plants. Also, excessive organic matter can rob water of its dissolved oxygen content, adding stress to the system, and resulting sometimes in the death of aquatic organisms.

Fish mortality is the most obvious, but by no means the only, indication of sewage’s adverse effects. In the words of one scientist, “Death is too extreme a criterion for determining whether a substance is harmful to marine biota.”[23] A much more appropriate way to assess the health of aquatic life is to look at the many sublethal effects that pollutants cause without necessarily resulting in the death of individual organisms.

The sublethal effects of water pollution on fish have been documented worldwide for a great many species.[24] They can take many forms—physiological, biochemical, pathological, and behavioural. Physiological abnormalities include reduction or inhibition of reproductive capacity, growth retardation, and reduced resistance to infection from pathogens. Biochemical disturbances cause alterations in metabolism, body fluids, and enzyme activities, leading to subtle organ impairments and physical abnormalities in developing young. Some common pathological disturbances include fin erosion, ulcerations, liver tumors, and skeletal anomalies caused by damaged genetic material. Also, by altering external surfaces, pollutants can facilitate invasion of pathogens. Behavioural changes such as altered feeding and migrating patterns are often due to chemical damage to fish sensory equipment and to their abilities to react to subtle chemical changes in water composition. As one investigator put it, the toxic effects of pollutants on sensory organs “are significant even if they do not cause permanent neurological damage, for [even] a temporary disability that prevents an organism from relating to a viable environment for only moments can be disastrous.”[25] In the long-term, sublethal effects on fish can adversely affect the community structure and dynamics of the fish population, as well as ecosystem structures and functions.[26] Fish population could also possibly be affected.[27]

Unfortunately, very few studies document the sublethal effects of pollution on fish of the Fraser River. However, looking at the level of fish exposure to contaminants, it becomes clear that effluent discharges from the Annacis STP pose a risk to the normal functioning of the Lower Fraser River estuary. According to the federal government, effluents from the Annacis Island and Lulu Island STPs are the two largest single sources of the fecal coliforms, suspended solids, nutrients, metals, and other chemicals found in the Fraser River’s main arm.[28] Moreover, the acute toxicity of these two primary STPs is compounded by the pooling of effluents of the Annacis plant, particularly during “slack tides” under low river flow conditions, when dilution factors can be as low as five to one at the edge of the mixing zone.[29] As tides reverse water flows in the Fraser River, they cause effluents to pool and spread across the river, virtually forming a layer across it. Under these circumstances, the toxic effluent from the Annacis Island STP can remain in the river for more than a day and a half.[30] Unfortunately, during the major downstream salmon migration in March and April, these conditions expose millions of young salmon and many other fish and organisms to pollutants.[31] Assuming a downstream migration of about 600 million juvenile salmon during that period, scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) estimate that 44 million probably encounter deteriorated water quality conditions.[32] Young migrating salmon thus encounter poor effluent dilution at an important stage of their life.

Other resident and migratory fish are also subjected to these slack tide conditions. For example, about 10 million eulachons—an important fish food—move upstream during the same period to spawn in the Lower Fraser River. Of the six billion eulachons larvae that are produced, at least 300 million have to swim through the effluent receiving waters.[33] As adult salmon and other fish species migrate through STP effluents, and other effluents, in this portion of the Fraser River, the potential for accumulation of contaminants in their tissues exists. In addition to threatening the health of resident and migrating fish, fish-food organisms, birds, and marine mammals, long-term toxicity can also lead to the loss of individual species and stocks.[34]

The mixing patterns of wastewater effluents with receiving waters, along with an innate behaviour of juvenile salmon, further magnify fish exposure to toxic effluents. Relatively warm municipal sewage effluents, when discharged in estuaries, coastal areas, or in regions subject to tidal movements, layer over the colder and denser marine receiving waters.[35] Experiments conducted by the DFO demonstrate that juvenile Pacific salmon display a marked surface water orientation during their migrating and rearing phase in estuaries.[36] They thus tend to swim through the more polluted layers of estuarine and marine water.

Water disturbances created by outfalls, heat inputs, and some chemical pollutants also naturally attract fish, despite the presence of suboptimal conditions that may very well cause fish to become unhealthy. The presence of fish can therefore not be used as an indicator of good fish habitat.[37]

In order to be able to survive in a competitive environment, fish have to be fit. Fish performance, however, decreases when they confront severe pollution. For example, to appease the irritation some chemicals cause to their gills, fish reverse the water flow over their gills—a phenomenon referred to as coughing. Recent studies by the DFO demonstrate that pulp mill effluent and other contaminants increase fish coughing, which can potentially jeopardize fish health and survival by severely limiting energy expenditure for migration or feeding, thus reducing spawning and production of progeny. It may also affect growth rates, as well as make the fish more susceptible to bird predation and diseases. It is suspected that similar effects occur in fish swimming in other effluents.[38]

Unless they undergo a final dechlorination process prior to being discharged in the receiving environment, chlorinated wastewater effluents can be very harmful to aquatic life. By “burning” fish tissues, especially gill structures, chlorine damages the biochemical ability of the fish to uptake oxygen. To protect itself from the irritation, the fish secretes mucus that rapidly builds up and clogs its respiratory surface. Eventually, the fish dies of asphyxiation. At high doses, chlorinated effluents result in immediate fish kills.[39] Severe burning has also been observed to cause convulsions in fish, which die of a broken back.[40] In the 1970s, in situ studies using caged sockeye and pink salmon fingerlings were conducted in three tributaries of the Fraser River, downstream from STPs discharging chlorinated effluents. Mortality rates of up to 100 per cent were observed at the furthest station, 277 metres downstream from the effluent outfalls. When chlorination was not performed, mortality did not occur, or it decreased significantly.[41]

Exposure to residual chlorine also increases gill permeability. In turn, this may lead to increased accumulation and hence toxicity of other chemical substances found in STP effluents. Chlorine is also thought to affect the nervous system of fish.[42]

The available scientific data on the effects of chlorinated wastewater effluents led the federal Minister of Environment and the Minister of National Health and Welfare, in 1993, to declare chlorinated wastewater effluents “toxic” as defined under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.[43] Unfortunately, management strategies have not yet been implemented, and so chlorinated wastewater effluent are still legal.

Lastly, in B.C., the approval of unregulated “mixing zones” emerged in the 1970s from a popular belief that fish can avoid these polluted areas by moving to the marshy and muddy back channels commonly known as sloughs. Since then, much has been learned about fish behaviour. The theoretical ability of fish to move to the sloughs does not say anything about their actual behaviour; migrating salmon do not, in fact, tend to move to these regions.[44] In addition, high levels of contaminants and low oxygen conditions are more likely to be present in the sloughs, so that if fish were to move there, they would most likely be more affected as conditions are generally worse than in the main channel.[45]

Shellfish Closures

Oysters, clams, cockles, and mussels are the most common type of bivalve molluscs found in B.C. Bivalve molluscs are soft body aquatic invertebrates enclosed by two shells joined by a hinge. Because bivalves feed by filtering water, they can accumulate naturally occurring toxins from the surrounding waters, as is the case with the microscopic organism responsible for red tides. Bivalves can also store chemical contaminants such as metals and organochloride compounds, and bacteriological pollutants such as sewage-related bacteria and viruses.

When waters are polluted by sewage, sewage-related bacteria and viruses are concentrated in the shellfish tissue to high levels. Since consumers prefer shellfish that are partially cooked, such as steamed clams, or raw, as in the case of oysters, there is the possibility of ingesting contaminated tissue and of contracting diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

Shellfish grounds are closed when the median fecal coliform count in a water sample exceeds 14 colonies per 100 ml, or when more than 10 per cent of samples exceed 43 per 100 ml. This means that in order to meet the standard for shellfish growing waters, one litre of sewage effluent has to be diluted by 35,000 to 71,000 litres of clean seawater.[46]

In British Columbia, most shellfish closures are caused by bacteriological pollution from STP discharges and other sources such as leaking septic systems, urban and agricultural runoff, and wildlife.[47] As of April 1995, more than 10,000 of the 71,000 hectares of intertidal and subtidal areas closed to shellfish harvesting were bacteriologically contaminated by municipal sewage outfalls—the equivalent of a coastal band one kilometre wide by 100 kilometres long. Closures of shellfish grounds due to these pollutants may last several years.

In addition to posing a serious public health threat, biologically contaminated shellfish grounds cause significant economic losses to both the farmed and wild shellfish industries. In order to rear shellfish as private property, farmers—also called growers—must acquire legal entitlement to the resources to be harvested. In addition to getting aquaculture licences, B.C. growers must obtain licences of occupation, for tenures of less than 10 years, or leases, for tenures of up to 30 years. The size of shellfish farms vary from half a hectare to over 50 hectares, with the average farm being two hectares.[48] In 1995, there were approximately 300 licences issued for shellfish farming, with rental rates varying between $550 and $634 per hectare per annum, and some 130 leases with similar rates.[49]  Lease holders are also required to survey the land, which initially adds between $2,000 and $10,000 to the rental costs.[50]

When an area is closed, a grower who does not own a tenure in a different area can easily be put out of business. Costs aside, little new land is available to growers. A grower applying for a new licence may have to wait as long as 18 months for a decision from the referral agencies.[51] Even then, it may not be a positive one. Under special circumstances, growers may obtain permits to harvest marginally contaminated shellfish as long as the harvest undergoes a biological purification process. However, this increases harvesting costs by 10 to 20 per cent.

Shellfish closures not only undermine the livelihood of growers who cannot afford to wait before acquiring a new licence of occupation or lease, but also affect growers with more than one tenure. Because the lost grounds are those near urban areas where environmental pressures are greatest, growers who remain in the industry have to go further afield in order to harvest. This entails acquiring better and more expensive equipment and paying increased travel costs. Often, the growers’ opportunity to make a living near their families is lost. Many people who were once involved locally in the shellfish industry have had to drop out because of these changes.[52]

The shellfish growers of Baynes Sound certainly face some of these threats. Despite its 70-year history as a major oyster farming area, 23 per cent of Baynes Sound’s total farming area has been closed, since 1993, due to bacteriological contamination.[53] The Sound’s farmers face additional pressures as wider closures are imminent. In 1992, Baynes Sound farmers produced $4.2 million worth of oysters and Manilla clams, 45 per cent of the total B.C. farmed shellfish sales. The growers’ 1996 revenue is expected to decline significantly as the recent closures begin to affect their marketing and processing costs.[54]

Beach Closures

Epidemiological evidence indicates that respiratory infections and gastrointestinal diseases may be contracted by bathing in sewage-contaminated water. Some possible sources of bacteriological contamination include combined sewer overflows, STP bypasses, poor quality effluent, and faulty septic systems. Parasites and viruses found in sewage effluents are transmitted by a fecal-oral pathway. As both have a low minimal infective dose, the risk of infection is elevated when even small amounts of contaminated waters are ingested. Because children usually ingest more water than do adults when swimming, they are more at risk of being infected.[55]

In British Columbia, the Medical Health Officer closes—or “posts”—a beach when the average fecal coliform bacteria count taken over a 30-day period exceeds 200 per 100 ml, as defined by the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality. Although ongoing beach postings related to fecal contamination from sewage are rare, they are still occurring. The closures of swimming holes on the Brunette River, which drains from Burnaby Lake which is itself contaminated by CSOs from Burnaby and Vancouver, are never lifted.[56] Richmond’s four beaches are posted year round for heavy bacteriological contamination from domestic and commercial sewage.

Temporary closures, however, are much more common. Last year, the Nanaimo Departure Bay beach was temporarily posted due to sewage contamination. Also, according to the Ministry of Health, sewer main breaks and on-site septic systems regularly cause temporary beach closures. The Simon Fraser Health Unit suspects that septic system malfunctions are the cause of three to four temporary postings per season. Operating problems such as power outages at the pumping stations also result in CSOs, and consequently in beach postings.

Compliance with water quality guidelines over a short period of time, however, or even the absence of bacteriological contamination indicators, does not guarantee the absence of other pathogenic micro-organisms.[57] Because fecal contamination persists for many months after its indicators have disappeared, the risk of catching one of many diseases doubles at a beach where water quality oscillates.[58] A study conducted at ten 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 British Columbia’s, the hazards of swimming should be even greater in the latter province.[59]

The same microbiological study concluded that the levels of all the survey organisms were at least 10 times higher in the sediment than in the corresponding surface water.[60] 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.[61] 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 be underestimated.[62]

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.[63] 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.[64] 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.[65] Table 2 lists the toxins most frequently found in the effluents of STPs, as well as some of their potential health and environmental hazards.

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,

Table 2: Potential health and environmental effects of toxins found in STP effluents[66]

Toxins

Potential health and environmental effects

Heavy metals
Cadmium neurotoxin (attacks nerve cells), teratogen (causes birth defects)
Chromium carcinogen (causes cancer)
Lead neurotoxin, teratogen, affects female fertility, bioaccumulative (builds up in thefood chain)
Mercury neurotoxin, teratogen, affects female fertility, bioaccumulative
Zinc excessive ingestion is uncommon but can cause gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea
Agricultural chemicals
2,4-D teratogen
Lindane carcinogen, teratogen, immunotoxicity (damages immune system)
Methoxychlor reduces fertility, bioaccumulative
DDD and DDE neurotoxin, affects fertility, immunotoxicity, carcinogen
Industrial chemicals
PCBs neurotoxin, carcinogen, suppresses immune system in animals, causes skin disorders, liver damage, depression and internal bleeding, affects fertility
Chloroform carcinogen, affects female reproductive capacity
Xylene affects male reproductive capacity
Tetrachlorethylene affects respiratory system, very persistent in the environment
Trichloroethylene poisonous by ingestion or absorption through skin, skin irritant
Cresol, Phenol poisonous by ingestion or absorption through skin
PAHs carcinogens, biotransformable (shift forms once in the organism)
LABs persistent in the environment, effects not yet known

 

Table 3: Diseases associated with pathogenic micro-organisms found in domestic sewage[67]

Type Disease or syndrome caused
BACTERIA
Aeromonas hydrophila Enteritis (inflammation of the intestine)
Campylobacter Enteritis, diarrhea
Clostridium perfringens Enteritis (indicator)
Escherichia coli Enteritis, diarrhea
Francisella tularensis Tularemia
Leptospira Jaundice, meningitis
Listeria monocytogenes Listeriosis
Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, skin
Pseudomonas Skin, ear infections
Salmonella (1700 types) Enteritis, typhoid
Shigella (4 species) Enteritis, diarrhea
Staphylococcus aureus Skin infections
Vibrio cholerae and parahemolyticus Cholera, skin infections
Yersinia enterocolitica & pseudotuberculosis Enteritis
HELMINTHS
Ascaris lumbricoides Ascariasis
Ancylostoma duodenale Hookworm infections
Trichuris trichiura Trichiuriasis
Taenia Taeniasis
Toxocara Abdominal pains
Strongyloides Abdominal pains
PROTOZOANS
Entamoeba histolytica and coli Enteritis, chronic diarrhea, dysentery,       liver abscess
Giardia lamblia Giardiasis, enteritis
Cryptosporidium parvium Enteritis, diarrhea
Ballantidium coli Enteritis, diarrhea
Naegleria fowleri Meningoencephalitis
Acanthamoeba spp. Meningoencephalitis
VIRUSES
Polioviruses (3 types) Paralysis, meningitis
Echoviruses (34 types) Meningitis, diarrhea
Coxsackieviruses A and B (30 types) Meningitis, conjunctivitis, chronic fatigue  syndrome, myocardia, diabetes
Hepatitis A and E viruses Epidemic hepatitis
Enteroviruses 68-71 Meningitis, conjunctivitis
Rotaviruses (+4 types) Enteritis
Reoviruses (3 types) Enteritis, respiratory
Adenoviruses (+40 types) Enteritis, eye and respiratory
Norwalk and like viruses Gastroenteritis
Caliciviruses and Astroviruses Enteritis
Coronaviruses Enteritis
Parvoviruses (2 types) Enteritis, respiratory in children

myocardia, and meningitis and are implicated in infections such as chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes (see Table 3). Less serious illnesses such as diarrhea and 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.[68]

The sewage treatment process only partially eliminates disease-causing micro-organisms. The percentage removed depends on the microbial type, the type of treatment applied, the length of the treatment, and especially the operational conditions of the STP.[69] Primary treatment is extremely inefficient at removing pathogens.[70] They either settle in the sludge, becoming a disposal problem, or simply flow straight through the STP into the receiving waters.

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.[71]

Only at the tertiary level is there enough of the organic load and turbidity removed to allow for an optimum disinfection process.[72] Tertiary STPs can inactivate between 99.5 and 99.9 per cent of micro-organisms.[73] Unfortunately, very few municipalities in B.C. are equipped with tertiary wastewater treatment facilities.

Part II: Laws 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 mostly unpunished and that unnecessary environmental degradation persists.

Provincial Statutes and Regulations

Waste Management Act: In addition to regulating the introduction of land-based and air-borne pollutants into the environment, this provincial law, enacted in 1982, regulates the introduction of liquid waste into lakes, rivers, and the ocean.[74] Permits issued by B.C. Environment control the maximum levels of BOD5 and TSS that each municipal STP is allowed to release into the receiving environment. Permits also control fecal coliform counts in chlorinated effluents. Furthermore, requirements for nutrient removal, flows, overflows, and so forth, are sometimes included.

In a 1994 speech on environmental offences, B.C. Environment Minister Moe Sihota commented: “The seriousness of environmental offences cannot be overstated, especially when one considers the long-term impacts of pollution. Offenders need to realize this, and the fact that not only big companies are facing charges—it is also individuals, subcontractors, and company directors. The courts apply the law to the party responsible.”[75] Despite the government’s tough rhetoric, although many municipal or regional STP permittees chronically fail to comply with the terms set out in their permits and regularly appear on the non-compliance/pollution concern list, and although many more occasionally exceed the permitted limits, very few charges are ever laid against delinquent STP operators. Convictions are even less common. In the past six years, B.C. Environment has convicted two non-complying STP permittees, for a total fine of $15,500—far below the maximum penalty of $3 million per day and/or the three years in prison.[76] This poor enforcement record is barely surprising as the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs has to finance between 25 and 75 per cent of the capital costs of the sewage infrastructure projects mandated by the province.[77]

Pollution Control Objectives for Municipal Type Waste Discharges in British Columbia: Also referred to as the Red Book, this 1975 document is used to develop today’s permits employing waste management practices that were at the time considered to be the best. It includes qualitative information regarding what should appear on a permit, as well as legally determined quantities, and/or concentrations, for effluent quality.[78] The adoption of  these objectives, however,  has not so much in common with environmental protection as with administrative expediency. Pollution control objectives are based only on generic STP requirements.[79] The unsuitability of this type of approach is no longer disputed as it is well known, for example, that even though each STP on its own may not cause environmental harm, many STPs discharging effluents into the same river may have a cumulative effect on the receiving waters.

Municipal Sewage Discharge Criteria: This document, which is presently being drafted,  will update the Red Book’s discharge criteria. It will apply to all dischargers. However, the document already seems dated. For example, it establishes secondary treatment, instead of tertiary treatment, as “Best Available Control Technology.”

Municipal Act: The Municipal Act empowers municipalities to regulate and control a wide range of activities. Under this act, local governments are permitted to pass bylaws to control the quality of wastewater released into their sewer systems. The GVRD, for example, adopted in 1990 the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage Sewer Use By-Law, which, through a permit system, controls industrial and commercial discharges into the sewer system.

As of 1996, virtually all of the 245 or so major industries in the GVRD territory have had their wastewater analysed and have received a Waste Discharge permit allowing them to release their liquid wastes into the city’s sewers.[80] Permittees are responsible for self-monitoring, with the only restriction being that a third party must analyse the samples they provide. A staff of three GVRD officers brings a regulatory presence by spot-checking and verifying the results of self-monitoring.

In cases of non-compliance, the first option is for the GVRD’s officers to try to solve the problem cooperatively with the non-compliant permittee.[81] Further actions include issuing an order under the Waste Management Act to commit to a compliance program, or to stop certain or all discharges into the GVRD sewer system. Finally, under the GVRD’s sewer use bylaw, offenders can be charged up to $10,000 for every day of the offence. Not a single industry has yet been fined.[82]

Unlike the GVRD, which has a thorough source control system in place, most municipalities and regional districts have more rudimentary sewer-use bylaws. These cover basics such as the regulation of pipe sizes that connect to the municipal sewerage system, and, by banning industrial discharge of corrosive, flammable, or explosive substances, protect the infrastructure and ensure workers’ safety.[83]

As for businesses, it is simply impossible for the GVRD to issue several thousand permits controlling what each could discharge into sewers. But although business wastes are not as damaging as industrial ones, they are still a nuisance to the GVRD’s sewers and to the environment. For example, the 4000 restaurants in the GVRD discharge huge quantities of oils and greases that can get entangled with rags and other obstructing debris, eventually jamming the sewers and causing CSOs. The solvents used by dry cleaners and the silver discharged by photo finishing shops not only impair the proper functioning of STPs but also flow through them into the environment, since the facilities are not designed to remove heavy metals. The GVRD is presently developing several Codes of Practices which would set out minimum requirements for businesses discharging into sewers.[84]

Liquid Waste Management Plan: In an effort to deal with waste more holistically, local governments are entitled, but not required, under the Waste Management Act to develop a Liquid Waste Management Plan (LWMP) that includes technical and public input on issues such as treatment options, their related health/environmental/economic effects, reduction/re-use/recycling of wastes, source control, CSOs, and so forth. Under an LWMP, operational certificates approved by B.C. Environment replace permits. In special cases, the province may require a municipality or a regional district to adopt an LWMP. Such was the case with the GVRD; the Capital Regional District and the Central Fraser District are also developing LWMPs.

Upcoming Regulation: B.C. Environment is presently drafting a new regulation which will establish currently missing legal discharge standards. The regulation, to come into effect in several years, will replace both the permit and operational certificate systems. In addition to tightening up the present standards, it should redirect human and financial resources, now spent on administration, to enforcement.[85]

The Common Law

Brought to Canada by English settlers in the 16th century, the customary English Common Law governs the rights and responsibilities of property owners. By giving property owners rights to clean water, and by empowering them to ensure that their rights are not encroached on by other interests, common law essentially acts as an environmental protection law.

Trespass law and nuisance law are two branches of common law that have been used to protect lakes and rivers from sewage pollution. Placing pollutants on someone’s property, either directly or via water or any other means, constitutes a trespass. In 1901, the City of Gloversville, New York, was prevented from continuing to empty its sewers into a creek that flowed through a farmer’s land. Gloversville sewage trespassed on the farmer’s property; the court thus ordered the city to stop its polluting activity.[86] Similarly, the use of one’s property at the expense of others’ enjoyment of their property constitutes a nuisance. In 1955, a judge granted an injunction against the City of Woodstock, Ontario. The city’s raw sewage, spewed into the Thames River, caused the cows of a downstream landowner to develop dysentery, to decrease their milk production, and to abort their calves. The judge trying the case found Woodstock’s STP to be a nuisance.[87]

Riparian law, another powerful branch of common law, has for centuries protected lakes and rivers with the principle that one cannot harm another’s property, or interfere with his/her enjoyment of it. Under riparian law, waterfront property owners have the right to unaltered water quality and quantity, even if they do not use the water or if the pollution does not interfere with their activities. In another 1955 Ontario case, the court issued an injunction against the Village of Richmond Hill, whose polluting STP violated the rights of downstream riparians.[88]

In B.C., however, using common law property rights to guarantee unpolluted water is not as straightforward. The 1979 Provincial Water Act vested water property in the provincial Crown, thereby abolishing the riparian right to the use and flow of water in B.C. But while it is accepted that rights to the use of water have been transferred to the Crown, some experts argue that water ownership has nothing to do with the rights of riparian owners to have clean water flow by, or through, their property.[89] If water transports pollution to a plaintiff’s land, interfering with his/her right to enjoy it free of pollution, then an action lies. Moreover, the Waste Management Act and the permits issued under it are both silent as to any legislative intent to abolish common law property rights.[90] The courts have until now avoided the issue in modern cases.[91]

Federal Statutes

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.”[92] Up to three years imprisonment can also be provided for repeated offences.[93]

Although STP effluents are known to be highly toxic and to contain disease-causing micro-organisms, municipal sewage polluters in British Columbia have enjoyed virtual immunity from prosecution. In the 19 years between 1977 and 1996, the federal government only filed three prosecutions against municipal sewage offenders.

In June 1993, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund undertook a private prosecution under the Fisheries Act against GVRD for discharging raw sewage into Burrard Inlet through a combined sewer outfall. As is common practice in British Columbia, however, the province’s Attorney General took over the prosecution. After sitting on the case for almost two years, and despite flawless evidence, the provincial Crown stayed the charges, only mentioning that B.C. Environment and the regional districts had a “handshake” agreement allowing CSO discharges.[94] This decision, however, is inconsistent with a 1982 judgment by the court which said that CSOs are designed to perform exactly what the Fisheries Act prohibits, i.e., discharging deleterious substances in waters frequented by fish.[95]

In May 1995, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund laid another charge against GVRD relating to 142 days involving discharges of sewage into the Fraser River from the Annacis Island STP in exceedence of permit limits. Again, the province special prosecutor took over the case. As of this date, the government has not announced whether or not the charges will be stayed. However, it is expected that the GVRD will have its way once more.[96]

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.[97]

Part III: Recommendations

As the population of Greater Vancouver grows, as the volume of sewage increases, as STPs exceed their designed operating capacities, and as older systems deteriorate, B.C.’s STPs run the risk of being further stressed.[98] In order to prevent further degradation and to allow for the recovery of B.C.’s waters, the three levels of government must utilize improved technology, implement and enforce stricter regulations, and introduce incentives to encourage citizens and corporations to restore and preserve B.C.’s waterways.

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, rivers, and oceans. 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.[99] In addition, as the use of chlorine adversely affects aquatic biota, wastewater chlorination should be phased out and substituted with a more environmentally-friendly disinfection technique using ozone or ultraviolet irradiation.

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. Less wastewater would foster increased treatment efficiency. It would also allow for the construction of much smaller plants which could then offer a higher level of treatment.

The antiquated system of combined sewers, still in place in some 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. In addition, the province should encourage local governments to equip themselves with alternative treatment technologies that use processes occurring in natural freshwater wetlands. Green technologies such as artificial marshes and solar aquatic systems 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. Every municipality should be required to adopt a Liquid Waste Management Plan and to develop a source control program.  CSO source control measures could include disconnecting rainwater leaders, utilizing porous pavement, sweeping streets, and cleaning catch basins. 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.[100] Therefore, changing behaviour at the household level is essential. The harmful environmental impacts 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 any effective sewer use bylaw. In communities with no thorough source control program, periodically monitoring STPs’ influents would provide information on the toxic substances dumped by households, businesses, institutions, and industries. Stricter monitoring of industrial sewer polluters should also be put into place. Larger sampling teams hired to spot-check industries and/or “intelligent” electronic sampling devices located in sewers could efficiently monitor the type of wastes released in sewers by industries, and could be a cornerstone in gathering data against negligent industries and ensuring that they are prosecuted.

Strict Enforcement: Although sewage polluters may contravene the Fisheries Act and the Waste Management Act, the government response has been to encourage resolution of the problem instead of prosecuting. Unfortunately, experience has shown that merely putting delinquent permittees on a non-compliance list and attempting to solve the problems through mediation often results in nothing being done at all.

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.[101] 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.

British Columbia should adopt a similarly strong enforcement policy with severe penalties in dealing with STPs’ discharges. Minimum mandatory sentences against municipal sewage polluters, with the fines going toward enforcement efforts, not to general revenue, would ensure that enforcement efforts are funded properly. Likewise, local governments should have mechanisms in place that ensure that industrial polluters comply with their source control permits.

Economic Reform: The current provincial subsidy system, which finances between 25 and 75 per cent of the capital costs incurred by municipalities desiring to equip themselves with sewage treatment facilities,[102] should be reformed. Although it is well-intentioned, the program sends the wrong message to municipal sewage polluters—that they have the right to pollute, unless the province pays them to stop.

The provincial government should make it clear that a municipality or regional district 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 clean up 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 with a flat rate.[103] Unfortunately, 58 per cent of B.C.’s population still pays exceptionally low flat rates for water supply and wastewater treatment. The average charge of $17.50 per month by far underestimates water’s intrinsic value and real servicing cost.[104]

For 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. This would increase STPs’ efficiency, which would improve effluent quality.[105]

Citizen Empowerment: Whether or not centuries-old riparian rights provisions of the English Common Law have been overridden by the provincial Crown’s legislative attempts to control STP effluent quality is a debate that has to be settled if the environment is to be effectively protected. The province should specify that the Water Act was not intended to override riparian rights to clean water. Furthermore, the Waste Management Act should be amended to specify that B.C. Environment approves STP pollution only to the extent that it does not violate others’ property rights.

Permittees failing to comply with the terms of their permits should be fully exposed to prosecution. In light of the governments’ poor enforcement record against municipal sewage polluters, citizens must be empowered to take sewage polluters to court when the provincial or federal government refuse to do so. The provincial government should change its policy by which the Attorney General takes over private prosecutions. If the Crown is truly concerned about having prosecutions proceed in the public interest, it should not prevent public involvement.

Privatization and Regulation of Wastewater Utilities: It has been estimated that the dete- rioration 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.[106] 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.[107] 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 prevent the erosion of environmental standards and pricing abuses by privatized utilities, it is essential to straitjacket them 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 are only few of the many success stories.[108]

Privatizing wastewater utilities would remove the conflict of interest that exists within the provincial government, which both finances and regulates sewage treatment works. 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 wastewater discharge limits.

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, rivers, and oceans would be protected from sewage pollution.

Notes

Bibliography

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