From Sea to Stinking Sea

From Sea to Stinking Sea

Canada lags behind many other developed countries in the way it deals with sewage treatment.

Bathroom jokes aside, few of us think about sewage, assuming that what we flush away will somehow take care of itself. But such an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude will no longer float, so to speak.

Even eight years after the Walkerton, Ontario, tragedy where seven people died and 1,200 people were sickened by E. coli contamination from sewage leaking into their municipal water supply, Canada is still an environmental bad boy, lagging behind many developed countries in the way it handles its waste water.

Given the overwhelming evidence that what we put into our environment will eventually come back to haunt us, it seems mind-boggling that anyone might actually be opposed to treating municipal waste water, which Environment Canada described in its 2001 report The State of Municipal Wastewater Effluents in Canada as “one of the largest threats to the quality of Canadian waters.”

In fact, some of our biggest polluters are also among the most scenic–coastal cities, where the attitude seems to be that ocean currents will take care of whatever foul things are spewed out.

Failing Grades

One of the worst offenders is the quaint city of Victoria, seat of the British Columbia government. Every year, Victoria and its suburbs dump more than 34 billion litres of untreated sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a fetid soup that includes not only human waste and disease-carrying organisms but also some 200 identified chemicals, many of which are toxic to aquatic life.

Yet despite years of debate, and despite orders from the BC government earlier this year that the Capital Regional District (in which Victoria is the major city) is to begin drawing up plans for sewage treatment, a number of vocal opponents–including local Liberal MP Keith Martin–have risen up to denounce the project.

This head-in-the-sand approach isn’t limited to Victoria, and it is what prompted the authors of the National Sewage Report Card III produced in 2004 by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund (now Ecojustice Canada), to state baldly: “Our sewage problems are comprehensive and countrywide–from sea to stinking sea.”

The United States has required at least secondary sewage treatment for all its cities and towns for 30 years now, and the European Union adopted similar standards for its member nations three years ago, according to Christianne Wilhelmson, clean air and water program coordinator for the Georgia Strait Alliance (GSA), an environmental group dedicated to protecting the marine environment of the strait.

But Canada has no national standards, and as a result, major cities such as Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax continue to dump billions of litres of raw or nearly raw sewage into our oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams every year.

According to Ecojustice Canada’s National Sewage Report Card, Vancouver discharged approximately 22 billion untreated litres of waste water from combined sewer overflows into Georgia Strait and the Fraser River in 2001 while Montreal continues to dump 900 billion litres of only primary treated sewage into the St. Lawrence River each year.

A Chemical Cocktail

Meanwhile, development of better sensing technology shows we may have more to worry about than obviously harmful substances such as the mercury, lead, chromium, copper, organochlorine compounds (such as PCBs), and hydrocarbons that are being dumped into our waters along with insufficiently treated sewage.

After a five-month investigation, the Associated Press reported this spring that testing in 61 major US municipal water sources for prescription and over-the-counter drug residues revealed a proverbial cocktail of up to 56 human and veterinary pharmaceuticals or their byproducts, including the active ingredients in pain killers, antibiotics, cholesterol drugs, antipsychotics, hormone supplements, and other powerful medications.

The report said that although some of those drugs were flushed down toilets, most of the residues came from human excretion, a worrisome trend when you consider how many more drugs an aging population is inclined to take.

Although the tests were conducted in the US, Canada is not immune to similar pharmaceutical contamination. In fact, only a handful of Canadian cities, among them Calgary, Edmonton, and Whistler, BC, have tertiary treatment, which is advanced enough to remove most unwanted substances.

No Quick Fix

Environment Canada is currently working on formulating national standards on sewage treatment, expected to be released in late fall, says GSA’s Wilhelmson. But even with that, don’t expect the country’s biggest offenders to clean up their mess any time soon. For example, Vancouver isn’t planning to bring its plants up to standard for at least another decade, and Victoria won’t be cleaned up until 2016, Wilhelmson says.

The big stink, it seems, is not going to go away any time soon.

Overcoming the “ick” Factor

“Here, have a drink,” says Mike Wehner, assistant general manager of water quality control and technology at the Groundwater Replenishment System plant in Orange County, California.

The water pouring from the tap is crystal clear and outdoor temperatures are warmer than normal on this particular day, so, yes, I’m thirsty after an hour-long tour of the plant.

But I hesitate for just a second. After all, the water I’m about to drink was treated sewage effluent just 45 minutes ago, the time it takes for the brackish liquid sent by the Orange County sanitation department next door to go through the state-of-the-art purification process and come out as pure as distilled water at the tap where we’re now toasting modern technology.

Drought, water shortages, population growth–these have been daily realities for semi-arid Southern California, where visionary local governments, forced to adhere to national drinking water standards that are among the most stringent in the world, have done just about everything short of turning wine into water to ensure a safe drinking water supply for their citizens.

Now, treated sewage water is seen as insurance against further erosion of traditional water supplies.

The Groundwater Replenishment System is a joint venture between Orange County’s water and sanitation departments. Built over four years at a cost of $483 million, the plant is the largest and most sophisticated in the world, employing a three-step process of micro-filtration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet and hydrogen peroxide disinfection to produce water completely scrubbed of toxic heavy metals, chemicals, bacteria, viruses, carcinogens, hormones, pesticides, fertilizers, and pharmaceutical residues.

In fact, the water is so pure, it must be remineralized or it will erode the concrete pipes that carry it to two destinations:

  • A fresh-water barrier to keep ocean water from contaminating the huge underground aquifer that provides the bulk of Orange County’s water
  • Large lakes that allow the water to take the path of natural rainwater and percolate back into the aquifer, a process that takes anywhere from six months to several years

Such a time lag removes the “ick” factor that made me hesitate before drinking the reclaimed water, which tasted just fine, by the way. In fact, the thought that this marvel of human ingenuity will recycle up to 265 million litres of effluent into high-quality drinking water every day was enough to prompt another toast.

“Bottoms up!” I said as I sipped another drink.


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