September 22, 2010
Sewage Treatment: Not Good Enough. The title of a chapter in the latest Annual Report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, released today, says it all.
Commissioner Gord Miller argues that municipal sewage, even when treated, places “very heavy burdens on our lakes and rivers.” Bacteria in sewage pollute beaches, ammonia and chlorine poison fish, and nutrients promote “soupy algal growth, fouling our shorelines.” Harmful effects can be observed 10 or 20 – sometimes, even 100 – kilometres downstream from where sewage has been discharged.
Mr. Miller notes that State of the Great Lakes 2009, jointly produced by Environment Canada and the US EPA, raised alarms about municipal sewage. It reported increasing phosphorus levels in Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and Lake Huron, and described the quality of beaches in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario as “poor” and “deteriorating.”
Contributing to this problem are Ontario’s eight primary sewage treatment plants, which serve about 140,000 people in Cornwall, Owen Sound, Brockville, and other communities. These outdated and substandard plants should be upgraded in the coming years.
But upgrading these plants is not enough. As Ontario’s population increases, the amount of pollutants discharged by sewage treatment plants will continue to increase. Mr. Miller argues that “the status quo approach to wastewater management is not adequate for today, and certainly will not be sufficient for the coming generation…. [A]llowable effluent concentrations need to be reduced over time, just to compensate for increasing flows to our waterways.”
Mr. Miller also argues for greater transparency and accountability, complaining that “the public is left in the dark on the performance of municipal wastewater facilities.” The Ministry of the Environment, he reports, “has not published an overview of basic performance parameters, such as pollution loadings and overall compliance rates, since 1993.” He recommends that the Ministry publish annual reports on the quality of municipal wastewater discharges.
Mr. Miller makes a convincing case: Ontario’s municipalities – and our provincial regulator – need to do more to clean up municipal wastewater.