Proposed sewage regulations: Advance or retreat?

May 4, 2010

The federal government is proposing regulating wastewater systems effluent under the Fisheries Act. When Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced the draft regulations in February, he sounded a tough note: “In 2010, it is unacceptable that we still dump untreated wastewater into our waterways.” His remarks may have been more bluster than substance. In fact, the proposed changes could make it easier for municipalities to pollute with impunity.

The proposed regulations would set allowable limits on four “deleterious” substances in wastewater: biochemical oxygen demanding matter, suspended solids, total residual chlorine, and un-ionized ammonia. What Mr. Prentice did not mention is that currently, under the Fisheries Act, no “deleterious substances of any type” may be deposited “in water frequented by fish” – unless, that is, they are authorized by regulations. Regulations now authorize effluents from pulp and paper mills, metal mines, petroleum refineries, and meat, poultry, and potato processing plants. But municipal wastewater has not been authorized – at least, not yet. The proposed regulations, in permitting specified amounts of four deleterious substances in wastewater effluents, may authorize discharges that were previously forbidden, in law if not in practice. In short, they may signify a relaxing of standards, rather than a toughening of standards.

On the other hand, if the government strictly enforces the new regulations, the environment will benefit. Existing Fisheries Act prohibitions have rarely been enforced against municipal sewage polluters. In fact, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, the federal government has stayed charges laid under the act by citizens determined to clean up sewage pollution.

The Department of the Environment notes that, during consultations on the proposed regulations, “many interested parties stated their desire for regulations under the Fisheries Act to clarify the current requirement of the prohibition on the deposit of deleterious substances…. This current prohibition is not always aligned with the regulatory regimes of the provinces and territories.” Municipalities’ desire for clarity is understandable, but clarity should not be achieved by relaxing standards. Clarity should, on the other hand, be enhanced by the rigorous enforcement of laws.

Also disturbing is the very long time-line proposed in the regulations. The regulations would be phased in, with requirements regarding monitoring, record-keeping, and reporting coming into force as soon as regulations are registered, those regarding most effluent standards coming into force 24 months later, and those regarding chlorine coming into force over three years. Non-compliant facilities would be able to apply for “transitional authorizations” under which they could continue to operate. Systems posing a high risk to the environment would be required to meet the proposed effluent quality standards within 10 years. Those posing a medium risk would have to meet the standards within 20 years, and those posing a low risk would have a full 30 years to meet the standards. This means that we may have to wait until 2040 to see the benefits promised by the new regulations – healthier aquatic ecosystems, healthier fish and fisheries, increased recreational use and tourism, higher property values, reduced health risks, and reduced water supply costs.

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