A new three-year study from Quebec’s Foundation Rivières has found that seven out of 10 municipalities still experience some form of contamination from local wastewater treatment plants.
The study examined 130 municipalities in Quebec, representing 15% of the province’s 846 existing municipal water treatment systems. It targeted five major watersheds, where nearly 1.5 million Quebecers live: the Richelieu, Bécancour, Châteauguay, L’Assomption and Missisquoi Bay rivers.
The data collected reveals that in 2018 alone, there were 53,645 discharges of wastewater into Quebec’s rivers, an average of 147 overflows per day. These overflows account for a total of 37,575 hours of overflow for 2018, the study found.
The non-profit foundation’s research also showed that one-third of the municipal sanitation systems examined exceeded their hydraulic treatment capacity. These exceedances meant 62 treatment plants diverted more than 21 million m3 of untreated wastewater into the environment, researchers said.
“All municipalities in Quebec have been waiting since 2014 to receive their ‘sanitation certificate’, a new standard that will establish the maximum number of overflows that the various watersheds can tolerate and the treatment standards to be reached,” the study states.
The study said that the process for issuing certificates could be completed in 2026, about 12 years after adoption of the regulations.
Foundation Rivières said in a statement that municipalities “have nothing to fear” from the Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques in terms of sanctions. The foundation notes that only 23 sanctions have been issued since 2014, including 18 for non-compliance with administrative deadlines for the transmission of mandatory information. No sanction has been issued relating to the contamination of water for discharges, beyond the allowed standards allowed by the province.
A couple of factors come into play, the foundation’s research states. First, a wastewater treatment plant may have been built during a period when discharge standards were more lenient.
“Since the plant has not been modified since its construction, the rules of the time still apply. In fact, the municipality can pollute watercourses legally without fear of possible sanctions,” the foundation states.
Second, a municipality may experience a scenario where it’s growing, and for instance, has obtained approval to construct 70 condominium units on the edge of a river. Authorization to build is conditional on increasing the treatment capacity of its sanitation systems, the foundation states. However, the municipality has eight years for the plant to comply with the standards, despite the immediate increase in housing units.