Troubled Waters: Municipal Wastewater Pollution on the Atlantic Coast, by Martin Nantel, examines the environmental and socioeconomic effects caused by the daily discharge of 1.1 million cubic metres of treated and untreated sewage in the waters of the Atlantic region. The report also addresses governments’ failure to enforce the legislation intended to regulate sewage treatment plants and proposes a solution to alleviate sewage pollution on the East Coast. Appendix A further illustrates the report’s findings using Halifax harbour as a case study.
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- Forty-four per cent of the wastewater generated by residents and businesses of the four Atlantic provinces ends up in septic systems, 29 per cent is directed to sewage treatment plants (STPs), and the remaining 27 per cent is spewed raw into our coastal waters.
- On an annual basis, this means that our coastal waters receive 122 million cubic metres of “treated” wastewater, 32 million cubic metres of which only undergoes primary treatment before discharge. Over 600,000 people living in some 194 cities, towns, and municipali-ties of the Atlantic region discharge an additional 100 million cubic metres a year of raw sewage into the coastal waters.
- Effluents containing raw or improperly treated sewage pose environmental and public health threats:
- In addition to degrading and destroying aquatic habitat, sewage pollution causes both acute and chronic toxicity in aquatic organisms. Cancerous lesions and other symptoms associated with chemical mixtures have been reported in Halifax and St. John’s harbours. Despite chlorine’s proven harmful environmental effects, STPs in the Atlantic region use at least 692,200 kg/year of chlorine-based products to disinfect municipal wastewater effluents.
- Sewage pollution 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.
- In Atlantic Canada, most shellfish closures are caused by bacteriological pollution.
- Indeed, the sole cause of approximately 20 per cent of all shellfish closures in the Maritimes, municipal wastewater is also implicated as a contributing pollution source in over 50 per cent of the contaminated shellfish areas.
- As of April 1995, there were about 580 closures comprising a total surface area of over 2,000 square kilometres, and representing 35 per cent of the Atlantic region shellfish areas.
- These closures represent a public health threat and cause significant economic loss to the shellfish industry, in addition to preventing recycling earnings into the local economy. For example, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimates that an income of over $8 million is forgone every year due to health-related closures of the soft shell clam fishery in south west New Brunswick alone.
- Shellfish closures also increase pressures on the open areas, reduce employment, increase consumer prices, and impose severe demands on enforcement agencies to patrol the closed areas for illegal fishing.
- The lax enforcement of many powerful regional, provincial, and federal laws have ensured that municipal sewage polluters go mostly unpunished and that unnecessary environmental degradation persists. Provincial Crowns and federal authorities have never filed any prosecution against municipal sewage offenders on the East Coast, despite the fact that many STP operators are chronically violating the laws.
- As the population of the Atlantic region grows, as the volume of sewage increases, as STPs exceed their designated operating capacities, and as older system deteriorate, STPs run the risk of being further stressed, and so does the environment. If provincial Crowns cannot afford to cleanup our coastal waters, they should invite the private sector to do the job. Here’s why:
- Owing to operational advantages, tax benefits, and timing and construction costs efficiencies, the private sector can provide most municipal services at a 10 to 30 per cent lower cost than municipalities can.
- More importantly, privatizing municipal wastewater utilities would eliminate the inherent conflict of interest that exists when a regulatory agency assumes financial responsibility for the same activity it regulates. The poor enforcement records of regulatory agencies are barely surprising when it is realized that these same agencies are financially responsible for up to 80 per cent of the capital costs of sewage infrastructure projects.
- By limiting governments’ interventions to the direct control of private wastewater utilities, i.e., by enacting strong and effective legislation preventing the erosion of environmental standards, pricing abuses, and services, privatization would allow governments to enforce long-ignored standards without fear of being asked to finance the improvements.
- Governments should empower everybody affected by sewage pollution to sue polluters. Faced with the threat of private lawsuits and government sanctions, private entrepreneurs would find innovative ways to eliminate sewage pollution. Technological innovations, educational campaigns, financial incentives, water-pricing reforms, source control, and monitoring programs are only a few of the ways in which sewage pollution would improve.
From the “Home of Anne of Green Gables” to the beautiful beaches of “Canada’s Ocean Playground,” from Newfoundland’s rocky shores to the picturesque coast of New Brunswick, the ocean relentlessly carves the physical and cultural landscape of the Atlantic provinces. In addition to nurturing a vibrant coastal-oriented tourism industry, the waters off Canada’s East Coast also long-supported a vital fin and shell fishery. Unfortunately, these waters, on which so many rely, are increasingly becoming polluted. One of the culprits is municipal wastewater pollution.
Consider the following examples: In Nova Scotia, Halifax and Dartmouth have been discharging raw sewage into Halifax harbour for the past 250 years. Currently, about 54.8 million cubic metres a year, or 150,000 cubic metres a day, of untreated industrial and municipal sewage from the twin cities is discharged directly into the harbour from about 40 outfalls. If spread over the city of Halifax, the total volume of raw sewage discharged annually would cover the city to a depth of .66 metres. (See Appendix A for more details.) Similarly, St. John’s, Newfoundland’s provincial capital, dumps 38.3 million cubic metres a year of raw sewage into its harbour. In Saint John, New Brunswick, more than 8.5 million cubic metres of raw sewage—a volume equivalent to 204 Exxon Valdez oil spills—ends up annually in the St. John River or in the Bay of Fundy.
These are by no means isolated cases. In fact, more than six hundred thousand people living in some 194 cities, towns, and municipalities of the Atlantic region dispose of their sewage in the same way. Of the approximate 1.1 million cubic metres of wastewater generated daily by residents, businesses, and industries of the four Atlantic provinces, about a quarter is released raw into our coastal waters. Because these enormous quantities of wastewater are hazardous to aquatic life, pose a public health threat, and contribute to socioeconomic problems, this paper reviews the Atlantic province’s ongoing municipal sewage pollution, and suggests an alternative to the status quo.
Various debris such as gravel, wood, plastic containers, condoms, tampons, and rags find their way into the sewerage system. Yet, the bulk of sanitary sewage consists of human excrement and water, and contributes mostly innocuous organic matter to the receiving environment—usually a body of water. Under normal circumstances, micro-organisms break down the organic matter that comes out of a municipal outfall.
Municipal wastewater causes problems, however, when the volumes discharged are greater than those the receiving waters can assimilate. Excess quantities of undissolved solids—also called suspended solids—will smother the habitat of bottom-dwelling organisms, degrade fish habitat, and fatally clog fish gills and abrade the exposed membranes of aquatic organisms. Excess organic matter may well kill fish and other aquatic species if the biological oxygen demand—the amount of oxygen used by micro-organisms breaking down the organic matter—reaches very high levels, i.e., if the dissolved oxygen level required by aquatic life becomes depressed.
Too much nutrients, by stimulating excessive and undesirable plant growth such as algal blooms—a phenomenon referred to as eutrophication—can put additional pressures on dissolved oxygen levels due to the increased number of oxygen-consuming micro-organisms required to decompose these aquatic plants. Certain species of non-tolerant organisms abandon these waters due to depressed oxygen levels. Unsightly growths of algae are also a nuisance to boaters and bathers.
In addition, pathogenic micro-organisms thrive in wastewater. These bacteria, parasites, and viruses found in human and animal stools, i.e., in wastewater, represent a latent threat to weaker fish that are more susceptible to bacterial invasion. If ingested by humans, these pathogens can cause many serious diseases such as hepatitis, myocardia, and meningitis and are implicated in infections such as chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes. Less serious diseases such as diarrhea, skin and ear infections also ensue (See Appendix B).
Treated and untreated municipal wastewater released into Canadian waters also contains over 200 chemicals and other toxins that are dumped into sewers by households, businesses, and industries. Added to this witches’ brew is urban runoff—a combination of oils, animal wastes, and poisonous substances that further contaminates our environment when inadequately treated. Appendix C summarizes the potential health effects associated with various toxins.
The purpose of wastewater treatment is to strip sewage of as much of its harmful elements as possible before releasing it to the receiving environment, especially when large volumes are involved. Municipal wastewater treatment can range from the most basic to more advanced. The difference lies in how much is taken out of the effluent, with each added level resulting in a cleaner effluent.
Primary treatment involves slowing down the wastewater and directing it to a sedimentation tank where larger suspended solids settle naturally due to gravitation. Secondary treatment consists of supplying oxygen to micro-organisms to enable them to grow and to eat organic matter in the sewage. This ensures that once released, the sewage effluent does not provide food for the micro-organisms that would consume excessive amounts of oxygen required by aquatic biota. Lastly, tertiary treatment uses a mechanical or a sand filtration to achieve a similar but more thorough treatment than secondary processes.
In certain cases, provincial regulators may decide to add extra steps to one of these three treatments in order to obtain an effluent of better quality. If an effluent is too rich in nutrients and adversely affects the receiving waters, the sewage treatment plant’s (STP’s) operators may have to further clean the effluent with a nutrient removal process. Similarly, to counter the potential risks associated with an effluent rich in pathogenic organisms that could harm recreational users, an STP’s effluent may be disinfected and subsequently analysed for fecal coliforms—bacteria present in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals, including humans, that can function as an indicator of fecal pollution in water bodies.
Forty four per cent of the total population of the Atlantic Provinces, or over one million people, is serviced by septic systems. The remaining 56 per cent is divided almost equally between those who are serviced by a municipal STP, and those who see their wastewater entering the environment directly, without any treatment. While approximately 32 million cubic metres of wastewater receives primary treatment before discharge, or 26 per cent of the total 122 million cubic metres treated every year in the region, an additional 100 million cubic metres a year is discharged raw into our coastal waters.
Effects of Sewage on Fish
As mentioned above, sewage pollution harms fish and other aquatic life by degrading and destroying aquatic habitat. When an aquatic ecosystem reaches excessive pollution levels, some or all of its organisms may die. But fish mortality and acute toxicity are by no means the only indicators, although they are the most obvious ones, used to determine whether a substance is harmful to marine biota. A not so extreme and much more appropriate (but more expensive and more complicated) way to assess the health of aquatic life is to look at the multitude of sublethal effects that pollutants cause.
The sublethal effects of water pollution on fish have been documented worldwide for a great many species. 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.”
Most of these sublethal effects have been associated with chemical mixtures from a variety of sources including municipal and industrial outfalls, urban runoff, pulp mills, and petroleum sites. Nonetheless, it is difficult to separate the effects of mill effluents from those of urban runoff and sewage pollution. However, a recent fish health study in and around St. John’s harbour revealed that many of the fish caught had been severely affected by pollution. In addition to evident fluid retention in fish gills, a general indication of a disturbed pathological condition, more than half the flounder caught inside the harbour had eroded fins. Severe liver lesions were found in fish from the entire study area. Although the funds available for the study did not allow for the establishment of direct links between pollutants in the harbour and the effects seen in fish, the fact that Saint John’s does not have “heavy” industrial effluents entering its harbour suggest that the effects observed are likely linked to sewage and/or to traditional runoff chemicals.
In the long-term, sublethal effects can adversely affect the community structure and dynamics of the fish population as well as ecosystem structures and functions. Although the fish population may also be affected, individual responses to stress do not provide a basis for predicting population impacts. Harm to individual fish does demonstrate, however, the presence of deleterious substances, and this in itself is a cause for concern. As they may produce subtle impacts over broader geographic areas, sublethal effects associated with chemical mixtures may be more significant than localized fish mortality.
Since 1903, when Allen Hazen determined the role that chemically treated water could play in reducing the death rate of the human population, disinfection of potable and wastewater has become widespread. Owing to chlorine’s powerful disinfecting capabilities, ease of application, and low cost, chlorination has become the most common method of disinfecting wastewater effluents in Canada and in the U.S., thus making water safer for recreational activities. The use of chlorine-based bactericides in municipal water and sewage treatment is now the single largest use of pesticide in the Atlantic region. In 1990, Environment Canada estimated STPs in the region used approximately 692,200 kg a year of chlorine-based products to disinfect municipal wastewater effluents. These quantities are probably much higher today since over-chlorination is common, particularly at STPs that malfunction because of age, mechanical breakdown, overloading, or general neglect.
However, Hazen’s successors did not foresee that chlorinated wastewater effluents, unless they undergo a final dechlorination process prior to discharge into the receiving waters, adversely affect aquatic life. Indeed, chlorine itself is toxic, as evidenced by the kill in 1991 of thousands of fish in Nova Scotia’s East River, due to the flushing of an industrial water line with a chlorine solution. In addition, when added to water, chlorine and its various compounds do not remain in their original form. Instead, they react with various pollutants in the water, and can lead to the formation of numerous compounds in the effluent, many of which may be highly toxic and detrimentally affect the biota and public health.
By “burning” fish tissues, especially gill structures, chlorine damages the biochemical ability of fish to uptake oxygen. To protect itself from the irritation, a 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. Severe burning has also been observed to cause convulsions in fish, which die of a broken back. 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.
In the 1970s, studies using caged sockeye and pink salmon fingerlings were conducted in three tributaries of British Columbia’s Fraser River downstream of STPs discharging chlorinated effluents. Mortality rates of up to 100 per cent were observed at the farthest station, 277 metres downstream from the effluent outfalls. When chlorination was not performed, mortality did not occur, or it decreased significantly.
In Nova Scotia, biological surveys conducted near three municipal STPs discharging chlorinated wastewater effluents revealed that the community structure of bottom-dwelling organisms was significantly altered at the furthest station sampled. For example, although scientists could not prove a causal relation, the total number of invertebrates sampled 100 metres from a chlorinated effluent outfall discharging in Halifax harbour was significantly reduced when compared to a control station located 2.5 kilometres away from the outfall. The total number of several annelid, crustacea, and mollusc species frequenting the area was also significantly reduced.
Although the average concentration of residual chlorine in STP effluents from the Atlantic provinces nears the recommended concentration of 0.5 mg/l, and although it is well below the levels known to have physiological effects in mammals and humans, it is still far above what aquatic invertebrates can tolerate. Acute toxicity tests have shown that concentrations as low as 0.002 mg/l can kill aquatic invertebrates.
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. Unfortunately, until the federal government implements management strategies, chlorinated wastewater effluent will remain legal, and the more environmentally-friendly, but more expensive, disinfection techniques using ozone or ultraviolet irradiation will not gain popularity.
Effects of Sewage on Shellfish
Sewage pollution also harms bivalve molluscs and crustaceans, two classes of invertebrate fish that are referred to as shellfish. Bivalve molluscs are soft bodied aquatic invertebrates enclosed by two shells joined by a hinge, and crustaceans are mostly aquatic invertebrates with segmented bodies, jointed limbs, and a firm, crustlike shell. In the four Atlantic provinces, clams, mussels, oysters, and quahogs are the most common type of bivalve molluscs harvested from the miles of beaches and rocky coastline. The most common type of crustaceans harvested are lobsters and crabs.
Except for some crustaceans, shellfish are nonmigratory or only weakly migratory, so the environment in which they are found as adults is the one to which they have been exposed for much of their existence. Shellfish are, therefore, a good sentinel species for water pollution and sediment contamination; they are better markers and can more directly demonstrate cumulative or chronic effects than fish can. Toxic contaminants that exceed shellfish tolerances may result in their immediate or protracted deaths. And as with finfish, the body of literature documenting the varied subacute and chronic effects of pollution on shellfish fecundity, physiological processes, body structures, and behaviour is steadily growing.
Cellular damage and deformities are two of the many pollution-associated diseases to afflict molluscan shellfish. Others include shell abnormalities and various cancers. Several studies using commercial shellfish species including oysters and periwinkles have disclosed a direct relationship between the developmental abnormalities in embryos and the degree of pollution.
In California, black abalone in a sewage-polluted area were compared with those from a clean area. Abalone at the sewage outfall site demonstrated slow growth and high mortality rates. Starving abalones with eroded shells were also reported. Individuals relocated from the clean site to the polluted area failed to grow and eventually died from undetermined causes. Studies also suggest that chronic exposure of molluscs to physiological stress, including toxic pollutants, decreases resistance to bacterial infection. Investigations conducted on mussels harvested from polluted areas of the northeast coast of the United States showed an increase in parasitism that correlated with centres of population density and industrial activity.
Crustaceans have their own set of pollution- or stress-related diseases. Prominent among them is a condition associated with badly degraded estuarine and coastal waters known as “shell disease.” Caused by bacterial or fungal destruction of portions of the protective outer shell, this condition often results in mortalities due to the deterioration of underlying tissues, secondary infections by opportunistic pathogens, erosion and loss of gill membranes, lost appendages, and increased vulnerability to predators.
Another abnormality found to increase in prevalence in suboptimal or stressful growing conditions is “black gill disease,” characterized by sediment accumulation in the gills and darkening of filaments in response to microbial growth and gill necrosis. Outer shell deterioration also ensues. Other stress-related pathology may include, but is not limited to, muscle and/or blood opacity, molt retardation, and abnormal or disoriented behaviour.
As clearly stated by Carl J. Sindermann, a leading authority on parasitology, “Despite the relative lack of robustness of the data base, it is becoming apparent that many of the disorders of molluscs and crustaceans in degraded habitats are stress related and are often expressions of a stress syndrome, quite distinct from that of fish, yet similar in that heterostasis—a heightened, energy-demanding physiological response to continuing stress—is achieved.” And, although the Atlantic region has seen very little eco-toxicological shellfish research, reflecting the funding priorities of our government, there is no reason to believe that the elevated level of pollution encountered in some areas does not exert similar stress-related responses in exposed shellfish to those observed in other parts of the world.
Perhaps the most noticeable consequence of water contamination by municipal sewage, agricultural, and industrial wastes is the closure to shellfish harvesting of most of the productive estuaries of the Atlantic region. Although the shellfish growing in contaminated areas may not themselves be harmed by wastewater pollution, the health-related closures of these areas to harvesting do cause socioeconomic hardships.
Because bivalve molluscs feed by filtering the water that surrounds them, they readily accumulate chemical and bacterial pollutants in addition to naturally occurring toxins enclosed in algae, even at a considerable distance from pollution sources. When waters are polluted by sewage, sewage-related bacteria and viruses are concentrated to high levels in the shellfish tissue. 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 live pathogens. To ensure that bivalve molluscs are harvested from clean waters, Environment Canada closely monitors water quality in shellfish areas and prohibits harvesting when fecal coliforms reach levels that represent a risk to public health.
In Atlantic Canada, most shellfish closures are caused by bacteriological pollution. Indeed, the sole cause of approximately 20 per cent of all shellfish closures in the Maritime provinces, municipal wastewater is also implicated as a contributing pollution source in over 50 per cent of the contaminated shellfish areas. As seen in Appendix D, other sources of bacteriological pollution include: industrial wastes; landwash from agricultural and urban areas; seepage from poorly operating septic tank and tile field disposal systems; direct discharges of raw sewage from pleasure crafts, fishing boats, and shore-side residences; and excrement of wildlife and domestic animals.
Since the 1940s, the number of closures has been escalating steadily, in large part reflecting increased monitoring. However, increased monitoring in turn reflects a higher demand for areas available for harvesting. Unfortunately, previously unmonitored shellfish grounds that become monitored in order to meet the increased demand are often found to be bacteriologically contaminated. In 1995, there were about 580 closures comprising a total surface area of approximately 2,009 square kilometres, and representing 35 per cent of the Atlantic region shellfish areas.
Socioeconomic Effects of Sewage Pollution
The molluscan shellfish industry is important to the economy of many rural coastal communities in Atlantic Canada. In 1994 alone, the commercial landings of oysters, clams, quahogs, and scallops generated over $165.3 million to the economy of the Atlantic provinces. Shellfish aquaculture, on the other hand, generated much less. The landed value of farmed bivalve molluscs for the same year barely reached $12.2 million. The farmed molluscan shellfish industry is nonetheless growing rapidly and reflects a more general trend of the aquaculture sector as a whole.
The economic repercussions of wild and farmed shellfish closures are felt throughout the region. In New Brunswick’s Caraquet Bay and in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Basin, fecal pollution precludes almost 50 per cent of the potential shellfish harvesting activities. It is estimated that the shellfish resources in these closures are valued over $2 million. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) estimates that the clam fishery in the now closed areas in Yarmouth Sound and harbour, Nova Scotia, has a potential of generating $500,000 annually.
In south west New Brunswick, the drop in landings of Mya arenaria, a soft shell clam that has brought record landings since 1880, has dramatically affected the local economy. Despite 1995 landings of 1,203 million tonnes that DFO values at $2.5 million, an estimated income of over $8 million is forgone every year due to health-related closures of the soft shell clam fishery. This income loss affects not only the diggers themselves but also the local economy: The small overhead expenses related to harvesting (a bucket and a rake) ensure that the local economy, rather than the servicing of fishing-related debt, directly recycles the bulk of the earnings.
Bacterial-related closures have a two-fold effect on the clam fishery: They remove the clams from the wild harvesting base, and they concentrate the diggers on the other open flats. In other words, digging areas are compressed. And while the digging rate on the most productive, but contaminated, beaches decreases, harvesting rate and pressures on the less productive beaches, which are usually the last ones to remain open, increase.
In summary, shellfish closures not only result in the loss of millions of dollars to fisheries and in increased pressures on the environment, but also reduce employment and increase consumer prices. They also discourage tourists from digging clams, an exciting recreational opportunity. Shellfish closures also impose severe demands on enforcement agencies to patrol the closed areas for illegal fishing.
Enough resources have already been spent documenting the ills caused by municipal wastewater pollution. Bookshelves full of literature documenting the adverse effects of sewage pollution in many different regions already exist. And although each city, town, or community has its own specific environmental and socioeconomic conditions, the available research points to a common conclusion: Sewage pollution is harming the environment, and it is affecting our health and our economy.
Provincial economic wizards argue that their governments’ coffers are empty and that plans for municipal sewage treatment have to await flusher days. But clearly, as the volume of sewage and the pressures on the environment and on society increase, waiting for public funds to become available prior to initiating any action is a foolish strategy. To reduce sewage pollution in the Atlantic provinces, alternative methods of financing and operating major capital projects are needed. The private sector has proven again and again that this is what they know how to do best. Here’s why:
First, privatizing municipal wastewater utilities would allow the construction of infrastructure that would do much towards eliminating national embarrassments such as Halifax and St. John’s harbours. Indeed, owing to operational advantages, tax benefits, and timing and construction costs efficiencies, the private sector can provide most municipal services at a 10 to 30 per cent lower cost than municipalities can . . . without an investment of scarce tax revenues.
This proposition is even more attractive when one considers that in Canada, experts estimate 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 wastewater utilities to almost double their investments in physical plants by the year 2015. Securing private funds will become even more enticing as existing systems exceed their designed capacities and costly upgrades are needed.
Privatization also answers one basic question that public ownership, because of its nature, ignores: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will keep the keepers themselves? Indeed, as soon as a provincial regulator assumes financial responsibility for a certain activity, it automatically becomes entangled in a conflict of interest. Because prosecuting non-complying STPs may force an already financially strapped government agency to inject more money into cleaning up wastewater, bureaucratic reasoning holds it that it is far better to turn a blind eye than to prosecute.
In order to fulfill their mandate many provincial governments now attempt to remedy municipal wastewater pollution cooperatively with STP operators. Unfortunately, business-friendly cooperation seems to achieve little regarding STPs’ performance. In Nova Scotia, despite many notices to non-complying STP operators, non-complying STPs make up the norm, and yet, none has ever been prosecuted for violating provincial and/or federal legislation. Unsurprisingly, the province of Nova Scotia finances up to 50 per cent of the capital costs of municipal wastewater projects. A similar situation exists in the other Atlantic provinces where the various provincial departments of the environment provide up to 80 per cent of the capital costs of STPs’ upgrades and construction. More examples can be found in Quebec, British Columbia, and most likely in the other provinces as well.
Were the onus to build and operate STPs put in private hands, the above situation would be turned on its head. In the same way therapy relieves patients afflicted with Multiple Personality Disorder, privatization would liberate provincial Crowns from their financial personae and help them find their true regulatory selves. Thus liberated, governments could do what only they can do: regulate others and enforce the law. By limiting their interventions to the direct control of private wastewater utilities, i.e., by enacting strong and effective legislation preventing the erosion of environmental standards, pricing abuses, and services, governments, through regulatory boards, could finally enforce long ignored standards without fear of being asked to finance the improvements.
Conjointly, governments should empower everybody affected by sewage pollution to sue polluters. Facing both the threat of private lawsuits and government sanctions, private entrepreneurs would find ways to eliminate sewage pollution: Technological innovation would spring up, education campaigns would become good investments, financial incentives not to discard harmful substances into sewers would become common, and comprehensive commercial and industrial source control and monitoring programs would be set up in order to exercise tight control over the substances discharged into the sewerage system. Moreover, by reforming the pricing system, privatization would increase consumers’ awareness of the true costs of providing wastewater treatment services, and would encourage them to reduce their demands on the sewage system.
On the other hand, despite improved sewage treatment, or sewage treatment where none was previously available, customers are likely to object to any price hike. It is worth remembering, however, that we are already paying a high price for the costs of unabated sewage pollution. We pay in terms of forgone income to the fishery and to the tourism industry. We also pay in terms of a degraded environment, loss of aquatic habitat, and loss of enjoyment of public beaches and of other recreational pursuits. Privatization would ensure that individual, commercial, or industrial polluters, rather than their victims, pick up the tab for protecting and restoring our rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters from unabated sewage pollution.