November 28, 2000
“What farmers facing environmental restrictions have suspected about provincial urban sewages systems is true: they are massive environmental polluters of sewage and other compounds. Because it would cost so much to upgrade facilities in cities and towns, the situation often gets a blind eye.”
It took just a few minutes. A manure irrigation gun, left unattended, pumping at full throttle. A faulty connection. Before anyone knew what had happened, several thousand litres of liquid hog manure were flowing down the slope towards the small trout creek.
Once the foamy sludge and the dead fish reached the outskirts of town the news was everywhere: a manure spill, an environmental disaster. Environment ministry inspectors were dispatched, reporters descended on the site. Local politicians were quick to take a stand, vowing to protect the area’s waterways from the environmental damage caused by these mega-farms.
Just a few miles away, the town’s sewage treatment system was reaching its capacity but the water kept coming. A torrent of rainwater from this morning’s downpour was flooding in along the ancient sewer system. The sewers had been built decades ago at a time when the town had only a quarter as many residents as today, when the cost of separating the town’s sewage flow and its storm waters along separate paths had seemed like an indefensible luxury.
Most of the time the system worked well. But a few times a year, during spring runoff and after a heavy summer shower, the combined loads of water become too much for the aged treatment plant to handle. To keep the facility from being swamped, staff decides to close the gates and the torrent of murky, gray water perhaps two million litres in all flows past, untreated except for a quick dose of chlorine, into the nearby river.
Two very similar events one the result of a rare moment of neglect, the other an all-too-routine occurrence. One inevitably the target of intense scrutiny, the other so much a byproduct of urban life that it rarely makes headlines and rarely sparks outrage.
Yet its impact is readily apparent along Ontario’s streambanks and beaches. So-called sewage bypasses are responsible for a lot of the pollution and beach closings in the province, says Environment Probe executive director Elizabeth Brubaker.
A 1999 report by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund (SLDF) that looked at the performance of sewage systems in 21 Canadian cities found that Toronto, where close to 30 per cent of the sewers are combined pipes, routinely has 30 to 50 bypasses per year. That’s approximately 9.5 billion litres of untreated sewage flowing into Lake Ontario and the Don River.
About 35 per cent of the sewers in Hamilton-Wentworth are combined structures that release several overflows a year into Hamilton harbour. Ottawa had two bypasses into the Ottawa River in 1998, spilling dome four million litres in the process.
This year, in one such event, the city of Kingston pumped 24 million litres into the Cataraqui River. And it happens in places like Goderich and just about any older city.
This just isn’t human excrement. According to the Sierra Legal Defence Fund paper, it’s an urban witches’ brew of 200 synthetic chemicals, including oils, PCBs, mercury and lead. Just one drop of oil can contaminate 25 litres of water and a mere gram of PCBs are enough to render a billion litres of water unfit for freshwater life, the group maintains.
Under federal fisheries legislation, discharging any substance “deleterious to fish” into fish-bearing waters is a major offence, punishable by a jail term and a maximum fine of $1-million.
Charges are rarely laid, although the SLDF found 200 violations of Ontario’s wastewater standard by municipalities in 1998 alone. About 60 towns and cities violated those standards at one time or another during the year, says SLDF staff counsel Elizabeth Christie. That makes municipalities the greatest source of water pollution in the province, ahead of the chemical and pulp and paper industries.
Toronto’s yearly rash of spills is one of the main reasons why area beaches are close after rains, says Christie.
Yet the public seems strangely willing to overlook these transgressions. “Imagine if Dow Chemical was responsible for a spill like that and people couldn’t swim,” Brubaker says. “Imagine the outrage. But people don’t seem to feel the same outrage at their own pollution.”
It’s not that the problem isn’t being addressed but it’s a slow and extremely costly process. Even though the number of violation in 1998 was high, they represented an improvement over the previous year, Christie says.
And they will do better in the future. Toronto, for example, is currently working on the so-called Western Tunnel Project, which involves putting in huge holding tanks to catch bypass flows and hold them until they can be pumped back through the treatment facilities.
Getting the multi-million dollar project underway was a highly controversial issue in the city, says Canadian Environmental Law Association executive director Paul Muldoon.
Muldoon says urban residents have been getting “a pretty good deal” on their wastewater treatment costs over the years. “The fear that I have is that people in the city probably don’t pay the full cost of sewer services that they get. Historically these things have been undervalued.”
Playing catch-up now will be a painful decision for taxpayers. But Muldoon sees it as an investment. In the case of Hamilton, pollution has made 85 per cent of the harbour area inaccessible to the public. “That’s recreational resource that’s not being used,” he says.
Christie says recent downloading of responsibilities from province to the municipalities strained local resources. “There is so much pressure now to do many things that wastewater treatment isn’t always a priority.”
Muldoon says there are two ways to approach the problem. One is in a capital-intensive manner such as the western Toronto project. The other is through land use regulations. For example, he says, homeowners could be encouraged to disconnect the drainage pipes from the city sewer and run them into the backyard. It would dramatically reduce the amount of water heading down the storm sewers after a rain.
He also says some cities are now requiring homeowners to have a permeable driveway and to limit the amount of area in their yard that can be paved. Both initiatives promote infiltration of rainwater instead of just runoff.
But while urban pollution has become a high-profile issue for groups like SLDF, Christie says, the group still remains concerned about agricultural pollution. Both situations “are environmental disasters,” she says. “We have to take them both very, very seriously.”