Hidden Threat: The pollution we never consider

As we begin turning our attention to what economic recovery might look like, we’re at a moment where we can continue to listen to science and prioritize investment decisions that support healthier and more resilient communities.

It’s precisely where investment and the environment intersect that Metro Vancouver has an important decision to make about a prominent source of pollution, which most of us rarely consider: wastewater.

Every single day, we each use at least 450 litres of water. It runs through our toilets, showers and sinks, and down our drains. Most of it makes its way to large regional wastewater plants where it is treated before the discharge is pumped directly into nearby marine and freshwater environments. In Metro Vancouver, ours goes directly into habitat important for endangered Southern Resident orcas and salmon, and along one of North America’s greatest migratory bird corridors.

This isn’t a problem when wastewater receives advanced treatment because this reduces pathogens and pollutants, and makes the water safe enough to return to local waterways. But Metro Vancouver’s largest wastewater treatment facility, the Iona Island plant—which treats wastewater from Vancouver, parts of Burnaby and Richmond—provides only primary treatment. This is problematic because it removes only the solids and sludge from the rest of the wastewater, and some of the contaminants in the waste. Significant levels of pollution including nitrogen, ammonia, phosphorus, some metals and pharmaceuticals remain, leaving the resulting outflow with a significant amount of pollution.

In the coming months, Metro Vancouver will make a decision about replacing the Iona plant. Will it opt for the minimum standard of secondary treatment or—perhaps with the input of ongoing public consultations that took place in late May, and with increased public pressure—will it do better?

Nationwide, more than 150 billion litres of untreated and under-treated wastewater is dumped each year into local waterways. To address the environmental, human health and economic issues that arise from sewage pollution, the federal government in 2012 mandated a minimum standard of secondary treatment for all large cities, with staggered and lengthy timelines for upgrades.

Unsurprisingly, many Canadian jurisdictions are already going beyond secondary-treatment levels, including certain areas in the Okanagan, Whistler, Calgary, a majority of Alberta, and parts of Ontario. In fact, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick, municipalities in B.C. have among the lowest percentage of wastewater being treated to tertiary levels.

The higher the level of treatment provided by a wastewater plant, the cleaner the discharge and the smaller the impact on the marine or freshwater environments. Higher levels of wastewater treatment (anything beyond secondary) can target and remove specific contaminants, which has a great benefit to the receiving environment.

Advanced treatment methods can eliminate 60 to 70 percent of chemicals like pharmaceuticals, which can harm marine life. For example, when killer whales ingest toxins from prey, they accumulate in their blubber and it can have devastating effects on their health and reproductive abilities, especially when food supply is low as it is today.

Upgrades to wastewater plants are expensive and infrequent but are a great opportunity to gain advanced management of pollution, which is soon to be the case in Victoria and the Lower Mainland’s North Shore. While the costs are typically shared by all levels of government, it’s up to Metro Vancouver to lead the way by creating a plan for tertiary treatment, which might even include carbon-sequestration technology to curb emissions from operations.

This opportunity—to make wastewater as clean as possible before it is discharged into the waters of the Salish Sea—won’t come along again any time soon. It’s already been eight years in the making. Let’s take it. Let’s reduce this ongoing threat to which we all contribute to on a daily basis. Let’s do it for the health of local marine ecosystems and coastal communities, as well as for the economies that depend on them.

Take action before Metro Vancouver’s June 8 deadline for written submissions.

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Christianne Wilhelmson is executive director of Georgia Strait Alliance, a non-profit marine conservation organization.

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