Backgrounder – why sewage treatment is important

What’s wrong with dumping sewage in the ocean?

  • When we dump ‘sewage’ into our oceans, we’re dumping much more than we think! Under-treated sewage not only contains human waste, but also harmful substances such as mercury, lead, chromium, copper, organochlorine compounds (such as PCBs), hydrocarbons and a growing list of new chemicals that are introduced every year. When they end up in the water, these chemicals endanger the health of the marine environment as well as human health.
  • Storm water is also dumped along with sewage. Storm water is the runoff from roads, parking lots, roofs etc., and contains all the toxic chemicals the water has picked up along the way, including hydrocarbon pollution such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
  • These toxic chemicals stay in the environment and harm plants and animals near wastewater outfalls as well as miles offshore.
  • These contaminants come back to impact us as we eat and use plants and animals from the sea.
  • With technology now in use around the world which recovers resources from sewage, we’re missing out on recovering water, heat and biofuels, which our communities need.

Where do the toxins in sewage and runoff come from?

  • They come from everyday things like paint thinner, car oil, chlorine bleach, nail polish remover and other products we use in our homes and businesses. They find their way into the sewage system via sinks, toilets, laundry as well as storm runoff.

What harm can these chemicals do?

  • Chemicals in sewage and storm water runoff ca  disrupt hormones and cause mutations, cancer and other serious, long-term health and developmental impacts in humans and wildlife. By making their way into the food chains of the animals in our waters, many populations are being put at risk.
  • The impacts of these chemicals are extensive and go far beyond just polluting our local beaches. Over the long-term, these toxics weave their way into the health of our families, the environment and our local economy.

What are major centres in our area doing about sewage?

  • In a major portion of the Capital Regional District (including the municipalities of Victoria, Saanich, Oak Bay and Esquimalt), there is NO sewage treatment. That means all of the homes, businesses and industries in these municipalities are discharging raw sewage directly into Juan de Fuca Strait.  Plans for a new treatment system, which was to be completed by 2018, has now been further delayed.
  • In the Greater Vancouver Regional District, two sewage treatment plants have secondary treatment, however the two largest plants still only have primary treatment.  The Lions Gate plan on the North Shore will be upgraded to secondary treatment by 2020, with the Iona plant in Richmond (which serves Vancouver) to be upgraded before 2030.
  • Nanaimo and a few smaller communities also only have primary treatment, but Nanaimo will have its primay systems upgraded to secondary by 2020.
  • In the Greater Vancouver Regional District, another serious problem is the combined sewage overflows (CSOs). In this antiquated system of piping (dating from the early 1900s), storm runoff and sewage share the same pipes. When it’s dry, all the contents of these pipes go to the treatment plants. However, when it rains hard (as it does in Vancouver frequently), this smelly and toxic brew discharges from 42 combined sewer outfalls. This causes pollution of local beaches and well as harming the local marine life.  Vancouver will have all its CSOs replaced by 2050.

What can I do?

  • Reduce the amount of chemicals that go down your drains, and you’ll reduce the amount of chemicals going into the marine environment.
  • Urge your community to build secondary treatment facilities, if it hasn’t already. Secondary treatment can remove many of the contaminants in sewage, including up to 99% of the PCBs and over 90% of endocrine disrupting chemicals in wastewater.
  • Urge your community to start recovering resources from its sewage. This will not only limit pollution of our marine environment but also provide communities with resources they need.

For a backgrounder on sewage and its treatment, download “Hidden Killer” from the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation.