Canadian Groups Demand Federal Action on Toxic Sewage

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - Cities on both the east and west coasts of Canada are spewing sewage contaminated with persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs instead of upgrading to secondary sewage treatment, an environmental organization and a labor union complained to the federal government Wednesday. Some cities still dump raw sewage into the ocean, a practice that must end immediately, the groups demand.

Sierra Legal Defence Fund submitted a formal petition to the federal Auditor General on behalf of the Georgia Strait Alliance and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union-CAW, requesting an investigation into the lack of sewage treatment and the resulting damage to the marine environment.

"Despite repeated promises of action from the government of Canada, sewage treatment systems in cities such as Victoria, Vancouver, St. John’s and Halifax are still inadequate and continue to release massive amounts of toxic substances into the marine environment each and every day," said Sierra Legal lawyer Margot Venton.


A sewage outfall in Victoria, British Columbia, where no sewage treatment exists (Photo courtesy Sierra Legal Defence Fund )
The submission highlights numerous promises by the federal government to deal with these issues and asks the Auditor General to investigate the gap between the government’s commitment and its actions.

Evidence accompanying the submission suggests that this type of pollution is contributing to contamination of the marine environment and marine life, including species listed under the federal Species at Risk Act such as British Columbia’s Southern resident killer whales and the imperilled beluga whale population from the St. Lawrence River.

"The minister of environment is allowing municipalities to illegally discharge contaminated sewage. In addition, he promised to bring in regulations to limit PCB contamination of our oceans more than two years ago and has failed to do so,” said Georgia Strait Alliance Clean Air and Water Program Coordinator Christianne Wilhelmson.

“The result is that animals like the Southern resident killer whales, which are already endangered, are being put even further at risk,” Wilhelmson said.

Technology to control and virtually eliminate persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs from sewage systems is widely used throughout Canada and the submission documents how, by upgrading from primary to secondary sewage treatment, up to 99 percent of all PCBs could be removed.

"To ensure a safe and clean marine environment the federal government must force our coastal communities to upgrade their sewage treatment systems," said United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union-CAW Environment Director David Lane.


Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson addresses the delegates at Globe 2004 in Vancouver. (Photo courtesy Globe 2004)
The petition turns a spotlight on the dirty underbelly of Canada's environment and is at odds with the environmental message the federal government is trying to convey.

At the Globe 2004 Business and the Environment conference March 31 through April 2, Environment Minister David Anderson painted a glowing picture of Canada's new urban environmental policies, but he did not mention sewage discharge.

Referring to Prime Minister Paul Martin's first budget as a "green budget," he said, "Prime Minister Martin’s awareness of urban environmental issues was obvious in the choices that we saw in the Speech from the Throne and in the Budget."

Anderson spoke of a Cabinet Committee structure that "puts the environment portfolio at the table in a way never before seen," and commitments to "move ahead on sustainable development," as well as some C$2 billion in expenditures to support the development of new environmental technologies.

"This commitment is about delivering results with the accountability that Canadians expect," said Anderson. "All based on a true partnership across all three levels of government to make clear differences in the lives of Canadians and quality of life in our communities."

But the petitioners against the discharge of toxic sewage say the federal government does not need new technology or new powers to clean up the coastal mess.

The government "has the power to ensure that PCBs aren’t dumped into the marine food chain," said Lane. "We are simply demanding that the federal government exercise that power."


British Columbia fishboat operators must deal with a polluted marine environment. (Photo courtesy UFAWU)
The federal government is aware that sewage toxics are finding their way into the food chain and contaminating marine mammals, fish and other sea life in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. A 2001 study by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans concluded that the killer whales of the Georgia Strait are among the most contaminated mammals on the planet when it comes to PCBs.

PCBs can be removed from sewage effluents. The higher the level of sewage treatment, the greater the reduction in the concentration of PCBs in the effluent streams. But the city of Victoria does not treat its sewage at all, and two of Greater Vancouver Regional District's largest sewage plants, the ones that discharge to the ocean, only provide primary treatment.

This is not the first time that the union, the conservation group and Sierra Legal Defence have tried to draw public attention to the sewage discharge problem. In August 1999, the second National Sewage Report Card issued by the three organizations reported that over one trillion liters of untreated or only partially treated sewage is dumped into Canada's rivers, lakes and oceans each year by some of the 21 cities surveyed.

This massive amount of waste "would cover the entire 7,800 kilometer (4,846 mile) length of the Trans-Canada highway to a depth of nearly 20 meters - six stories high," says the report.

"Collectively, this flow of untreated sewage - a foul mix of water, human excrement, grease, motor oil, paint thinner, antifreeze and other substances containing toxic synthetic chemicals - would fill the main chamber of the House of Commons every three-and-a-half minutes," the report states.


Halifax, Nova Scotia discharges raw sewage into the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo courtesy French for the Future)
"Since we published our first report in 1994, we've seen no improvement in enforcement measures against municipalities," said Karen Wristen, then executive director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. "Of the 21 cities we investigated, only three have ever been charged by provincial authorities. I cannot think of any other law that is violated daily by so many, with nothing being done."

"Canada has passed domestic laws, signed international conventions, and adopted national standards and strategies which all purport to prohibit this kind of pollution," said Venton. "Our request is merely that the government enforce its existing laws and live up to its international commitments."

The OECD ranks Canada ninth out of 28 developed countries in the percentage of the population served by public sewage treatment. Only 78 percent of Canadians had public sewage treatment as of the OECD's 2001 report.

There are three levels of sewage treatment – primary, secondary and tertiary – which provide progressively more effective treatment. In Canada, only 33 percent of the population is served by tertiary treatment, the best available treatment, while 19 percent still have access to only crude primary treatment, the least effective form of sewage treatment.

Over 90 Canadian municipalities still discharge raw, untreated sewage, the OECD reports, including three provincial capitals - Victoria, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and St. John’s, Newfoundland. Raw sewage from these three large cities still goes straight into the ocean.