We must stop treating our lakes, rivers, and oceans as toilets

December 1, 2010

Dear Friends:

Our sewage systems – carrying and treating the waste we flush down our drains – are Canada’s largest polluters. And yet, the federal government is giving them as much as 30 years to clean up their acts.

Municipal sewage systems dump more than 150 billion litres of raw sewage – and approximately 1.35 trillion litres of only partially treated sewage – into our waterways every year. The sewage threatens our health and our environment. Bacteria, viruses, and protozoa in sewage can contaminate drinking water, make beaches unswimmable, and close shell-fisheries. Ammonia, chlorine, and other toxins can poison fish. Phosphorus and other nutrients can promote algal growth and deplete oxygen in water, further harming fish. Sediment can destroy fish habitat. We see harmful effects 10 or 20 – sometimes, even 100 – kilometres downstream from where sewage has been discharged.

Provincial environment ministers have compiled a list of 949 sewage systems that need to be upgraded to provide “secondary” treatment – the minimum acceptable level of treatment in the US and elsewhere. Here in Canada, some coastal systems still provide no treatment whatsoever before discharging sewage into our oceans. Victoria, for example, merely screens large solids from its sewage before discharging it into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Other systems provide only minimal – or “primary” – treatment. In Ontario, eight primary sewage treatment plants serve Cornwall, Owen Sound, Brockville, and other communities. Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley did not exaggerate when he said, “We are still treating the Great Lakes like a toilet bowl.”

This year, the federal government proposed new regulations to curb sewage pollution. They aren’t tough enough, they weaken citizens’ rights to protect the environment, and they may not be adequately enforced. But worst of all is the snail’s pace of the proposed changes. The government is planning to give the worst 399 systems an entire decade to clean up. Of the other sub-standard systems, 403 will be allowed to pollute until 2030, and 147 more will continue to pollute until 2040.

Why don’t citizens insist on action? Many are unaware of how badly their communities are polluting. As the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario recently explained, “the public is left in the dark on the performance of municipal wastewater facilities.” Those who do know, and try to take action, are undermined by the same government that promises to end sewage pollution. Citizens in BC have laid several charges under the federal Fisheries Act to stem pollution from local sewage plants. In 2007, and again in 2008, the federal government stayed the charges.

And why don’t municipalities act on their own to stop spewing filth into our lakes, rivers, and oceans? They have no excuse. If municipalities can’t figure out how to treat their sewage, they should bring in experts to help them out. Plenty of water companies would relish the challenge. And if municipalities don’t have the funds to pay for the required infrastructure, they should bring in private capital. There is a tremendous amount of money available for infrastructure investments – much of which is now being invested abroad for want of takers in Canada.

The federal Environment Minister has acknowledged that “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.” And his government has admitted that sewage pollution is costing Canadians billions in lost recreational and tourism opportunities, closed fisheries, higher water supply costs, public health risks, and lower property values. The government is talking the talk. But it’s not walking the walk. We need action. And we need it now – not 30 years from now.

If you agree that we must stop treating our lakes, rivers, and oceans as toilets, please support our work with a generous donation.


Elizabeth Brubaker
Executive Director


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