Critics of a new Private Member’s Bill say that its attempt to revert the law to its previous status and once again criminalize the dumping of raw sewage into fish-bearing waters will only erase transparency from companies who fear that data could be used against them as evidence.
Canada’s Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER) were introduced in 2012 to manage wastewater releases by systems that collect an average daily influent volume of 100 cubic metres or more. The theory was that it would be better to have a reporting system for releasing effluent that could be supported by proper monitoring and record keeping. Of course, the regulations also imposed deadlines on municipalities for building and upgrading their systems to meet the standards of secondary wastewater treatment, a biological process that can remove up to 95% of contaminants.
Bill C-269, introduced by former Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, proposes to revert the Fisheries Act to its pre-2012 status, when companies and communities could be charged for dumping sewage, essentially redefining raw sewage as what is called, under the act, a deleterious substance. If the bill were to receive royal assent, municipalities would have five years to upgrade their wastewater systems.
“This timeline is long enough that they would have time to do the necessary work, and is short enough that we can take real action on protecting the environment in the here and now, not just punt the ball years and years down the field,” Scheer told the House of Commons on May 10.
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But critics of the bill say that it would only penalize communities already struggling to make real progress on the wastewater treatment file. It could also have a negative impact on recreational and commercial boaters who would be open to fines when depositing sewage in the ocean, even though it is unavoidable without spending large sums of money on updating their vessels.
“There is no doubt that infrastructure spending is required and that making arbitrary and unenforceable prohibitions is not the solution,” Bloc MP Monique Pauzé told the House of Commons, calling the $1.5 billion in federal funding from 2015-2019 “peanuts”.
To once again charge municipalities for dumping raw sewage would in no way help them to secure the necessary funding for wastewater infrastructure upgrades, and only distract from the real issue, said Pauzé.
Pauzé added that in 2016 the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimated that at least $18 billion would be needed to upgrade municipal wastewater systems to comply with federal standards, but the federal government has pledged significantly less.
Pauzé was also critical of the bill because of its sole focus on wastewater, leaving dumping exemptions for a range of products such as petroleum products, chemical products, pesticides, heavy metals and industrial effluents.
Mark Mattson, an environmental lawyer and president of Swim Drink Fish Canada, has noted that when municipalities such as Kingston, Ontario, started being transparent with its raw sewage release data, it became easier for the community to get behind ideas for change and more easily support necessary funding. He also says that overall water health has improved since the new WSER system was implemented.