May 3, 2010
Across Canada, 949 sewage facilities need upgrades to help them meet internationally accepted standards of treatment. Of those, 399 pose high risks to the environment.
That’s one of the troubling revelations in the Department of the Environment’s analysis of the impact of its proposed Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations – regulations that would require all municipal systems, along with a limited number of industrial and institutional systems, to use the “secondary” treatment already demanded in the United States and Europe.
The Department of the Environment calls wastewater systems one of Canada’s “largest sources of pollution.” Wastewater systems, it reports, discharge more than 150 billion litres of untreated sewage every year. Even the treated effluent often fails to meet internationally accepted standards. Almost a third of the Canadians who are connected to sewer systems lack sufficient treatment.
The systems most desperately in need of upgrades are found disproportionately in Newfoundland and Labrador or are under federal jurisdiction. But every province has sub-standard systems. A study conducted in 2006 for the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment identified187 such systems in Quebec, 186 in Newfoundland and Labrador, 150 under federal jurisdiction, 109 in Ontario, 81 in Manitoba, 62 in Nova Scotia, 57 in New Brunswick, 48 in Alberta, 30 in Saskatchewan, 24 in Prince Edward Island, 13 in British Columbia, and 2 in Yukon.
The Department of the Environment acknowledges that the negative impacts of sewage pollution have been understood for decades. It summarizes them as follows:
Wastewater effluent has been shown to have a variety of harmful impacts on ecosystem health, fisheries resources and human health in Canada. Ecosystem impacts can include fish kills; algal blooms; the destruction of habitat from sedimentation, debris, and increased water flow; and short- and long-term toxicity from chemical contaminants; along with the accumulation and magnification of chemicals at higher levels of the food chain. Human health risks can also stem from the release of untreated or inadequately treated wastewater effluent. In some circumstances, it could contaminate drinking water sources with bacteria, protozoans, and several other toxic substances. Canadians may also be put at risk from consuming contaminated fish and shellfish and engaging in recreational activities in contaminated waters. In terms of fisheries resources, wastewater effluent can, for instance, limit the full potential of the Canadian shellfish industry, an industry with sales of $1.5 billion per year, by contributing to the closure of harvesting areas. It can also impact tourism by contributing to lost recreational opportunities resulting from beach closures and restrictions on other beneficial water uses.
After years of discussions with the provinces, the federal government is now proposing regulating wastewater systems effluent under the Fisheries Act. Please see my next blog post for more on the proposed regulations, and on whether they signify progress or regress.