21 Jun Canadian government decides that your sewage doesn’t stink for up to 30 years from now
Canadian government decides that your sewage doesn’t stink for up to 30 years from now
Last week, the Canadian Press reported the results of a two-year long information request regarding a database held by Environment Canada on spills. The results are disturbing, but not surprising. The Canadian Press claims that the database lists 6,555 spills in 18 metropolitan areas since 2004, including over 500 sewage spills. Total sewage discharges in Canada are estimated at 6 trillion litres per year, with over 150 billion litres of this likely untreated. These discharges present a serious environmental concern, and are one of the largest pollution sources in Canadian waters.
Metals, dissolved oxygen, suspended solids, bacteria, nutrients and emerging contaminants such as endocrine disruptors are released through municipal wastewater. Wastewater effluent impacts can include fish kills, algal blooms, the destruction of habitat from sedimentation, debris, toxicity, and increased water flow. Human health risks can also occur. Wastewater can contaminate drinking water sources with bacteria, protozoans, and several other toxic substances. Canadians may also be put at risk from consuming contaminated fish and engaging in recreational activities in contaminated waters.
In Alberta, a municipal wastewater system requires an approval under the provincial Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. The Wastewater and Storm Drainage Regulation and Wastewater and Storm Drainage (Ministerial) Regulation provide additional requirements for registration of wastewater lagoons. The guide document used by Alberta Environment applies “Best Practicable Technology” standards for municipalities.
The federal Fisheries Act prohibits anyone from depositing or permitting the deposit of a deleterious substance in (or near) water frequented by fish. There is no federal legislation authorizing the discharge of municipal effluent that is “deleterious” to fish. In many cases, the level of treatment provided by Canadian municipalities is unlawful under the federal Fisheries Act; meaning that contamination resulting from wastewater discharges harms or kills fish. These discharges are illegal whether or not they comply with the provincial permit.
The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) has proposed regulations under the Fisheries Act to set clearer standards for some substances in municipal wastewater. These regulations authorize discharges of deleterious substances as long as they fall below set limits, similar to provincial permit schemes, but with a particular emphasis on fish health.
Municipalities have often argued that how they spend their money is their business, even if they spend it on other priorities at the expense of clean drinking water, safe swimming areas and a healthy aquatic environment.
Municipalities have also argued that clear, fair, set discharge limits should be replaced with ambiguous and burdensome site-specific risk analysis of whether harm occurs. Such approaches present significant enforcement and compliance challenges by involving complex calculations about mixing, risk and biological harm and require extensive monitoring and assessment to identify violations.
To some extent, the proposed CCME regulations accept the “risk management” approach advocated by municipalities, in that the regulations don’t include limits for phosphorus, nitrogen and fecal coliforms. They also apply only to wastewater systems that have the capacity to deposit 1000 cubic metres per day. The regulations don’t apply in the NWT, Nunavut, Northern Quebec or Labrador. The proposed regulations also do not address the management of emerging contaminants of concern from pharmaceuticals and other sources.
The proposed federal regulations would give municipalities lengthy timelines of up to 30 years to comply with standards for only a few contaminants. Wastewater systems posing a high risk would be required to meet the effluent quality standards within 10 years; those posing a medium risk within 20 years; and those posing low risk, within 30 years. This will leave some otherwise illegal facilities exempted from fisheries laws that have been violated for decades.
The proposed CCME regulations would require that some municipalities and wastewater lagoons upgrade to meet the new federal requirements. According to the regulatory analysis, in Alberta it is suggested that there are 48 facilities requiring upgrades, the majority of which are considered medium risk.
Alberta Environment’s “Best Practicable Technology” standards for municipalities are roughly comparable to the proposed CCME standards except the regulation of ammonia and chlorine, which are both important contaminants not addressed in the provincial standard.
There is no assurance from regulators that public health and the environment will be adequately protected while municipalities take 10-30 years to comply. These timelines are not consistent with those ordered by the courts on the rare occasions when municipalities have been charged and convicted.
Lengthy timelines are unfair to the public and the environment since some municipalities have been aware that they have illegally harmed fish and contaminated the environment for many years, and have been aware that these new standards were coming since 2003. In essence, the proposed regulations fail to recognize fully the duty of municipalities to protect the environment and comply with the law – and at the same time ignore the harm to public resources caused by further delay.
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