First Nations group seeks more input on major York Region sewage project

Upper York Sewage Solutions Map
Graphic Credit: York Region.

The Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, located on Ontario’s Lake Simcoe, say they want the Town of Georgina council to take “an official position” on the long-stalled $685-million Upper York Sewage Solutions project that is now again under provincial consideration.

The First Nations group, led by Chief Donna Big Canoe, has raised concerns over the effects of some 40 million litres of treated sewage that will be entering Lake Simcoe daily. The community has argued that there could be potential long-term effects from the sewage plant and has noted concerns around pharmaceutical and personal care products in the water.

Big Canoe recently wrote a letter to Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk, included on the agenda for the March 6 meeting of town council, to address the project that has stalled since a 2014 environmental assessment began its long wait for a decision.

“The First Nation has always been willing to move forward and look for solutions but can’t control whether the province or the region are willing to have substantive discussions,” she wrote. “So far most of the important issues, including impacts on First Nations rights and managing pollution have been explicitly off the table.”

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Big Canoe further noted that the few attempts to follow duty-to-consult requirements have been “inadequately executed” and not “genuinely sought the community’s advice”.

In response to the letter, Mayor Quirk stated to council that they would push to be of assistance to the First Nations community and attempt to ensure all duties to consult are met.

“There are certain things that maybe we need to get more clarification on if we are going to have this discussion again in the future,” Quirk told council.

The Chippewas collected 35,418 signatures last year for a petition to the Ministry of the Environment to reject the region’s sewage proposal, which would service areas in the Towns of Aurora, East Gwillimbury and Newmarket.

In summer 2017, the Chippewas received $2.6 million in federal funding to upgrade and expand its own water treatment plant via investments made through the Small Communities Fund — a joint initiative between Infrastructure Canada and the Ontario government.

For its part, York Region has been vocal about the advanced treatment options available through the Upper York Sewage Solutions project, which must heed strict provincial guidelines around the Lake Simcoe watershed, established because of high levels of phosphorus in the lake, which is also home to more than a dozen other sewage treatment plants.

The new wastewater treatment facility would include a new water reclamation centre to produce clean, treated water that would flow into the East Holland River, as well as reclaimed water for water reuse applications such as sod and tree farms.

The new project also involves modifications to the existing York Durham Sewage System by a twinning of the wastewater forcemain through the Town of Newmarket to provide system reliability and reduce the risk of sewage spills.

Additionally, the project is set to include a phosphorus offsetting program to remove phosphorus from other sources within the Lake Simcoe watershed.

York Region officials have described the proposed treatment plant’s third and fourth levels of treatment as having the ability to remove viruses, bacteria and protozoa from the water, essentially “disinfecting” it. The region conducted a one-year pilot study for membrane treatment and reverse osmosis technologies to test the water quality produced.

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