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

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.




The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) has been seeking strong and effective environmental laws since it was founded in 1982. The ELC is dedicated to providing credible, comprehensive and objective legal information regarding natural resources, energy and environmental law, policy and regulation in Alberta. The ELC’s mission is to educate and champion for strong laws and rights so all Albertans can enjoy clean water, clean air and a healthy environment. Our vision is a society where laws secure an environment that sustains current and future generations.

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  • Leah Orr
    Posted at 14:18h, 30 June Reply

    An interesting letter by Meredith Brown from Ottawa Riverkeeper in the Ottawa Citizen:

  • lauracbowman
    Posted at 11:26h, 22 June Reply

    Some argue that the onus should be on the public to prove impacts on, say, wildlife, for example killer whales – which rely on Salmon from the area around Victoria before any sewage should be regulated. Such an approach demands something approaching certainty of harm, rather than a rational basis for managing risk.

    Victoria sewage is released untreated into Juan de Fuca Strait, critical habitat for endangered Orcas. From time to time the orcas swim right through the sewage, over the outfall pipes off of Clover Point and Macaulay Point.

    The question you pose is, should Victoria comply with set, precautionary standards to mitigate, minimize and address the RISK of harm to the orcas and other marine life generally using standards – reasonable guesses about potential harm to marine life?

    Or on the other hand should the public have the onus of proving actual harm to justify regulation? Should the public have to prove, that orcas are impacted by the sewage, specifically the Victoria sewage to justify managing it better? It is true that there is uncertainty as to whether Victoria sewage is harming the endangered southern resident killer whales. On the other hand, a number of indicators raise a reasonable rational basis to believe this may be occurring. The time, expense, risks and other challenges of doing extensive research to prove every possible marine impact need to be factored into the approach that you say this “demands”.

    It is not simply a question of enforceability, or as you put it “hammers hitting nails” it is an issue of effectiveness, (preventing harm to orca critical habitat, before it is irreversible) and sound policy (precautionary approaches).

    For example, I might say that a drunk driver actually hit someone, and that the proof must be that they did so because they were drunk. You ask that the presumption be that an inherently risky activity be unregulated until the risk is fully realized. Further, the “receiving environments” argument could be compelling here too, maybe when I am drunk, I drive just fine. Maybe my route is filled with few hazards and risks. Maybe based on my particular situation, the risks of driving drunk are very small compared to other factors. Yet, nevertheless I may be convicted of drunk driving and nevertheless society has decided it is not my decision to manage this risk on an individual level for practical reasons.

    I would respectfully disagree with the individualized risk management approach for reasons of expense, enforceability and sound precautionary risk management. It is impractical to evaluate every situation individually when the issue is not that the activity is always harmful, but that it creates broader societal risks that need to be effectively managed.

  • John Newcomb
    Posted at 19:18h, 21 June Reply

    ELC are lawyers, so naturally you argue for “…clear, fair, set discharge limits…” If you have a hammer, all you see are nails? However, such an “end-of-pipe” (EOP) approach doesn’t address the fact that different receiving environments demand different approaches – and different limits.

    Victoria is a good case in point, where many scientists have challenged the EOP approach, and found no reason for spending a billion dollars, creating new environmental challenges, without any environmental benefit from land-based sewage treatment plant mega-schemes.
    Chemicals of emerging concern aren’t addressed by conventional sewage treatment plants, but the “concern” should mean more focused research, not leaping to more advanced treatment without knowing clearly what that brings in terms of new environmental impacts of such treatment.

    For more information:

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