Toronto’s sewage woes

September 30, 2009

Toronto’s sewage woes were in the news last week.

The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, and the Toronto Star all ran stories about legal charges arising from a sewage bypass at Toronto’s Ashbridges Bay treatment plant. (A "bypass" occurs when heavy rains threaten to overwhelm the sewage treatment plant or flood people’s basements. Operators, allowing sewage to bypass full treatment, discharge partially treated sewage into the lake.)

Last week’s news stories focussed on the fact that Ontario’s Environment Ministry laid charges against Toronto for discharging partially treated sewage into Lake Ontario for five days in late 2006. The ministry had approved two days of bypasses. Apparently the city neglected to close the bypass gates and the discharges continued for several more days.

But the real story here isn’t that charges have been laid. (In fact, those charges were filed in November 2008.) The real story is that charges should be laid far more often.

Sewage bypasses are common. According to the Toronto Sun, sewage at the city’s three treatment plants has legally bypassed full treatment 91 times in the last three years.

In Flushing Out the Truth, Ecojustice estimates the volume of Toronto’s sewage pollution. The city, it says, dumped billions of litres of un-treated or under-treated sewage in 2006 and 2007. These releases were from bypasses and combined sewer overflows. (The latter occur when pipes carrying both sewage and stormwater cannot handle the volume of the liquid in them and overflow directly into Lake Ontario or our rivers, without any treatment at all.) The report calls attention to serious inadequacies in measuring and reporting such releases, concluding that "the province simply does not know how much sewage is escaping proper treatment and being dumped in Ontario’s waterways."

Information on the quality of Toronto’s sewage discharges can be found on the Pollution Watch web site, which records the release of pollutants by facilities across Canada. Relying on data from Environment Canada, the site indicates that in 2006, Toronto was the country’s largest water polluter. The Ashbridges Bay treatment plant alone released 13,679,710 kg of pollutants into Lake Ontario. Its biggest releases were nitrates, ammonia, and phosphorus; it also released zinc, copper, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury.

Why isn’t the Environment Ministry doing more to curb Toronto’s chronic pollution?

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