November 18, 2003
Four-hundred-and-seven. That’s the number of municipally owned water treatment plants that failed Ontario inspections in the year ending March 31, 2003. More than two years after contaminated water killed seven people and sickened 2,300 in the town of Walkerton, 61 percent of the province’s water plants got failing grades in training, sampling, disinfection, or water quality. Yet still – as has always been the case, whatever the party in power, and however desperate the need – the province hesitates to enforce its water laws.
Ontario is by no means the only province tolerating sub-standard drinking water. In British Columbia, some 340 communities are under boil-water advisories. BC’s health officer recognizes the limits of such advisories: "It is clear that more can be done to … minimize our reliance on individual households boiling water as a de facto form of water treatment." Vancouver, which does not filter its water, has a standing boil-water advisory for those with compromised immune systems. Vancouver’s chief health officer says that the city doesn’t meet standards for two or three months a year. He pleads, "You can’t allow that to continue."
As if problems with our drinking water systems weren’t bad enough, our sewage systems are also grossly inadequate. Environment Canada calls sewage pollution "one of the largest threats to the quality of Canadian waters." In the Atlantic provinces, the wastes of nearly half of those connected to sewers receive no treatment before being released into local waters. Raw sewage spews from several of the region’s cities, including Halifax, St. John’s, and Saint John.
On the other side of the continent, Victoria merely screens sewage from its two largest outfalls before pumping it into the ocean. It dumps almost 45 billion litres of raw sewage into the ocean each year. Perversely, politicians deny a problem exists. This summer, the chair of the regional district’s environment committee told the CBC: "We have very clean effluent. I think our effluent would compare favourably with effluents anywhere."
Even cities with sewage treatment plants are polluting our lakes, rivers, and oceans. Earlier this year, the environmental coalition PollutionWatch ranked plants in Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver among the largest water polluters in the country.
Water and sewage utilities are rarely forced to comply with the provincial and federal laws and guidelines that are supposed to govern them. Loath to prosecute scofflaw plants, regulators are extraordinarily patient. BC has given Vancouver 18 years to clean up the flow from one sewage treatment plant, 28 years to clean up another plant’s discharges, and 50 years to stop combined sewer overflows. Many regulators don’t issue deadlines at all. They prefer cooperation over coercion, voluntary abatement over mandatory compliance, and education over enforcement.
In refusing to enforce our laws, provincial and federal regulators are sending an unambiguous – and terribly dangerous – message to utilities: Compliance is not urgent. The Chief Judge of the Yukon Territorial Court made this point earlier this year when sentencing Dawson City for pumping untreated sewage into the Yukon River. In this rare case of a sewage polluter being held accountable for violating the federal fisheries act, the judge noted that territorial officials had tolerated the pollution for years. Their conduct, he said, "constituted passive encouragement of non-compliance by the City." So, too, with Environment Canada’s failure to prosecute the city. "This lack of action over a period of almost 20 years sent only one clear message to the City of Dawson: non-compliance is not a serious matter. It is a message that the City of Dawson received in clear and unequivocal terms, and goes some way in explaining its somnambulistic attitude for the better part of 20 years."
Official tolerance of sub-standard treatment relieves pressures on our utilities, reducing their incentives to solve persistent water and sewage problems. This culture of cooperation has failed to bring plants up to standard. Instead, it has brought us platitudes and empty promises ?and hundreds of plants that threaten public health and our lakes, rivers, and oceans.
It is time to make enforcement mandatory. Regulators must prosecute utilities that break the law. Those who are criminally liable must be fined, and, if necessary, jailed. Our utilities won’t provide us with safe drinking water and clean sewage until our governments demonstrate that they are serious about cracking down on dangers to our health and environment.
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