MEDIA BACKGROUNDER: National Sewage Report Card III

Sept. 2004
View the National Report Card

Report Card Highlights

  • Evaluation of the 22 cities was based on: level of sewage treatment, volume of raw sewage discharged, compliance with laws and regulations, type of disinfection, method of sludge disposal, prevalence of combined sewer overflows and commitment to improvement
  • Calgary, Edmonton and Whistler: Top of the class with 100% Tertiary treatment with UV disinfection
  • Halifax, St. John’s and Dawson City: Still near the bottom of the class, but major upgrades planned
  • Montreal: Failing grade got worse; still 40% of sewage discharged raw into the St Lawrence River
  • Victoria: Worst in the class. Only large city still discharging all of its sewage raw, approved a 25-year plan without commitment to upgrade

Sewage-related Laws and Standards

  • Canada lacks binding national standards for sewage treatment, instead we have a patchwork of federal, provincial, municipal and international laws and standards
  • The European Union has adopted legally enforceable declarations requiring all urban communities to upgrade to secondary sewage treatment by December 31, 2005
  • The United States has binding federal legislation in the Clean Water Act, which requires all cities to have the equivalent of secondary sewage treatment
  • Canadian municipalities are generally responsible for regulating and operating sewage treatment facilities and sewer systems and ensuring that effluent meets basic provincial and federal pollution standards
  • Canada has federal laws intended to protect fish bearing waters such as the Fisheries Act, and laws to control toxic substances, such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, but largely ignores the issue of sewage pollution

General Sewage Statistics

  • Canada generates more than 3 trillion litres of sewage each year
  • Victoria continues to dump more than 34 billion litres of untreated sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca each year
  • In 2001, Vancouver discharged approximately 22 billion litres of untreated wastewater from combined sewer overflows into Georgia Strait and the Fraser River
  • Montreal continues to dump 360 billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River each year
  • Halifax has committed to construct advanced primary sewage treatment facilities in coming years, but continues to dump 65.7 billion litres of raw sewage per year into the Atlantic Ocean
  • St. John’s has committed to construct primary sewage treatment facilities, but still dumps 33 billion litres of raw sewage per year into the Atlantic Ocean

Sewage Treatment

  • Sewage is a cocktail of water, human waste and hundreds of toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, PAHs, PCBs and PBDEs.
  • Screening removes grit and large solid materials and is the sole method of treatment in only Victoria and Dawson City.
  • Primary treatment is used to settle out organic and solid matter (only Charlottetown and Montreal use this as their only method of treatment, 19% of Canadians served by primary)
  • Secondary treatment is used to break down organic matter (14 of 22 cities use secondary at some or all plants, 38% of Canadians served by secondary)
  • Tertiary treatment technologies remove additional nutrients and pollutants
  • Chlorine and some of its by-products are highly toxic to aquatic organisms, yet it is still used by a majority of Canadian municipalities
  • The best “treatment” is to ensure that toxic chemicals never enter the sewer system
  • 85% of inland municipalities served by sewers receive secondary or tertiary treatment
  • 80% of municipalities on Pacific coast receive only primary treatment
  • 48% of population served by sewers on Atlantic coast receive no treatment at all

Sludge, Bypasses and Combined Sewers

  • Sludge is the solid waste left over after sewage is treated and liquid removed. Disposal on agricultural land releases unknown toxic chemicals to the environment; sludge not tested for many known chemicals
  • Bypasses are used when a treatment facility is overloaded
  • Combined sewer systems carry sewage, storm water and urban run-off in the same pipes and tend to be releases directly into environment during heavy precipitation (Seventeen of the 22 cities surveyed still have combined sewers)

Key Recommendations

  • Ensure that all communities in Canada have access to effective sewage treatment that ensures that the environment and human health are protected from contamination from sewage effluent and sludge
  • Take a holistic approach to sewage treatment and address the problem of harmful contaminants before they get in the sewer system
  • Develop legally binding national standards for sewage treatment in Canada that are enforced consistently and equitably throughout the country
  • Federal and Provincial governments must make available appropriate funds to ensure proper treatment facilities are built in all communities in Canada
  • All levels of government must ensure that resources are made available for research and development of safer sewage treatments including effective methods for safe sludge disposal
  • Chlorine disinfection must be phased out and replaced with safer alternatives
  • Reduce discharges from combined sewer overflows and untreated storm water outfalls