September 8, 2009
Environment Minister Jim Prentice has recently expressed serious concerns about sewage pollution across Canada. In the July-August 2009 issue of Policy Options, Prentice called Victoria’s sewage pollution “one of the most pressing and contentious situations in the country.”
Prentice again focussed on sewage in a speech in August. He challenged the myth “that Canadians are good stewards of our water resources.” He turned his attention to the 4,000-plus wastewater systems in Canada, saying, “perhaps the most important way in which we can help improve the water quality of Canada’s rivers and lakes is to work with the provinces and municipalities to address wastewater.”
Prentice announced that the new Canadian Wastewater Strategy – setting national performance standards, timelines, and monitoring and reporting requirements – will be implemented through regulations under the Fisheries Act, due to be published for review in December 2009 and finalized in 2010. He vowed to enforce the strategy “with the powers of the Fisheries Act to protect the health of Canadians and the environment.”
The government’s purported commitment to cleaning up sewage polluting by enforcing the Fisheries Act seems to conflict with recent actions it has taken on the West Coast. In two cases in the last two years, the government has stayed charges laid under the Act by citizens determined to clean up sewage pollution.
Some background: In August 2006, environmentalists launched a private prosecution against the Greater Vancouver Regional District and the Province of British Columbia, claiming that toxic discharges from West Vancouver’s Lions Gate sewage treatment plant violated the Fisheries Act. In December 2006, they laid another charge, this time concerning Richmond’s Iona sewage plant. Both plants use only primary treatment, which reduces the BOD by less than 40 percent (BOD, or biological oxygen, demand refers to the oxygen used by microorganisms that break down organic matter in the effluent) and removes few of the heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides or other toxic substances. Vancouver doesn’t plan on upgrading the Iona and Lions Gate plants to secondary treatment until 2020 and 2030 respectively. In laying charges, environmentalists asked that the upgrades be completed by 2013.
What happened next calls into question the federal government’s commitment to solving Canada’s sewage problems: In October 2007, the government stayed the pollution charge concerning the Lions Gate plant. And in November 2008, it ordered the provincial court to end the prosecution related to the Iona plant.
Last month, Jim Prentice told his audience, “I do not think there are many priorities that can be higher than the need for clean water.” Allowing citizens to exercise their rights under the Fisheries Act is an important way to help Canadians achieve this goal.