From sea to slimy sea

Elizabeth Brubaker
Vancouver Sun
November 7, 2002

For three days in September, a mechanical failure at Winnipeg’s largest sewage treatment plant sent the waste from 370,000 people spewing, untreated, into the Red River. The putrid mixture of human, household, and industrial wastewater poured into the river at the rate of 230,000 cubic metres a day, poisoning the water, threatening fish, creating a stench, and alarming downstream residents who feared that the contamination could seep into their wells.

Dan Wasylkiw, who lives near one of the spewing outlets, told the Winnipeg Free Press, “This ain’t the kind of thing you expect to happen in this country.”

Au contraire, Mr. Wasylkiw: This is precisely the kind of thing you expect to happen in this country. Canada is notorious for its sewage pollution. From sea to slimy sea, we routinely dump our raw sewage into harbours, lakes, and rivers. The result, as described in the Boston Globe, is “pollution on a scale unseen outside the Third World.” St. John’s is one of our most infamous polluters. In June, the federal Fisheries Department banned all fishing in St. John’s harbour. The harbour’s fish have become so contaminated by sewage that people could get sick not just from eating them but from merely touching them. Mayor Andy Wells has called the pollution “a shame and a disgrace.” But he put off clean-up until others agreed to foot the lion’s share of the bill. “I didn’t think that I would see the harbour cleaned up in the next 10 years,” he admitted last month, after extracting $60 million from other levels of government.

St. John’s is by no means the only Canadian city that is too tight-fisted to treat its sewage. Halifax spews more than 150 million litres of the stuff into its harbour every day. Victoria merely screens out solids before flushing its sewage into the ocean. Councillor Helen Hughes says that the city has no plans to change its practices, defending the discharge mix of bacteria, viruses, parasites, heavy metals, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other toxins on the grounds that “99 percent is water.”

Sewage pollution is against the law. The federal Fisheries Act prohibits “the deposit of a deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish.” Discharging sewage into waters in which fish live clearly violates the Act. But our governments refuse to enforce this or other laws governing sewage pollution. The B.C. government has given Greater Vancouver 18 years to clean up the flow from the Iona treatment plant, 28 years to clean up the Lions Gate plant’s discharges, and 50 years to stop combined sewer overflows.

What’s holding everyone up? The biggest impediment is the enormous cost of cleaning up after ourselves. The Canadian Water and Wastewater Association estimates that we will need to spend $61 billion in the next decade to bring our sewers and sewage plants up to snuff.

Municipalities, loath to ask residents to pay to treat their own waste, look to upper levels of government for infrastructure funds and other subsidies. This reliance puts provincial and federal regulators in conflicts of interest that help explain their reluctance to enforce clean-water laws: They understand that if they get tough, they will have to foot the bills for the required improvements. Meanwhile, the expectation that, sooner or later, subsidies will come through gives municipalities a convenient excuse to go on polluting.

Municipalities’ abject dependence on provincial and federal governments condemns us to filthy waters. Not until we accept that none of us has the right to pollute, not until we embrace the principle of “polluter pay,” a cornerstone of environmental thought, will we have sufficient funding to sustain fully functioning systems.

But even if consumers pay through higher bills, who will provide the up-front capital? Private firms insist that they can meet municipalities’ capital needs. Their claims are boosted by evidence of massive investment in other jurisdictions – especially by private water and wastewater utilities in England and Wales. Here in Canada, the private alternative is beginning to take hold. Thanks to private-sector investment, Moncton finally has a water filtration plant. Municipal polluters should seek the same solution.

Private firms, spurred on by a competitive marketplace, can do more with less. Through innovation and efficiency, they stretch capital and operating funds, typically bringing savings of 10 per cent to 45 per cent – lowering consumer costs or enabling governments to direct their limited funds to other needs. Even modest efficiencies can make an enormous difference: A 10-per-cent reduction in the capital expenditures envisioned by the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association would free up $6 billion.

Private financing will also allow federal and provincial regulators to enforce tough laws without concern for their treasuries’ bottom lines. Combined, these factors make private financing not so much the last choice as the best choice.

Elizabeth Brubaker is executive director of Environment Probe, a Toronto-based think-tank. Her book, Liquid Assets: Privatizing and Regulating Canada’s Water Utilities, was released this week by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Public Management.

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