Ontario ECO report says province is stalled on fighting sewer overflows

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Ontario’s appointed environment watchdog said new pushes to reduce sewage overflows into lakes and rivers have been missing in action due largely to regulatory gaps, old municipal systems, and outdated provincial limits based on decades-old data.

The new 2018 environmental protection report by Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Dianne Saxe, entitled Back to Basics, warns that limits on practices such as combined sewer overflows, which still occur in 44 Ontario municipalities, were set 25 years ago, based on studies from the 1980s in relation to then-available technology.

“Government promises to keep the limits up-to-date have never been kept,” Saxe said Tuesday in a press conference at Queen’s Park. “Provincial laws have reduced many types of water pollution over the last half-century. But deliberate gaps in these laws are allowing some big water pollution problems to persist or worsen.”

The Ontario Water Resources Act regulates the discharge of municipal and industrial sewage and stormwater through sewage works approvals. Local source protection plans developed under the Clean Water Act help to keep untreated sewage out of municipal drinking water and protects the drinking water of some 82% of Ontarians. However, Saxe said it does nothing to protect most Ontario waterways, or the drinking water of many rural and remote Ontarians.

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In 2017-2018, raw sewage overflowed into southern Ontario waters 1,327 times, 766 of these from 57 outdated municipal sewer systems that combine sewage with stormwater, the report noted.

Issues such as closed beaches and a decline in water quality where families swim and fish, appear to have had little impact on effecting change, Saxe said.

“Over 30 years after banning new combined sewers, the government has still not required municipalities to take all practicable steps to stop these overflows,” Saxe told reporters.

For example, Saxe added, municipalities could do more with stormwater fees and green infrastructure to keep stormwater from flooding combined sewers. She said that “poorly monitored programs” with “too little funding and insufficient regulations” have not worked. The result, Saxe said, is that the Ontario government still allows industries to dump 58 toxic wastes, such as lead, arsenic, and nonylphenols, directly into lakes and rivers.

“The Ontario government has known about this for decades, but has consistently chosen not to regulate these pollutants effectively,” Saxe said at Queen’s Park.

The report suggests that raw municipal sewage, agricultural runoff, toxic industrial wastewater and road salt are four significant sources of pollutants that threaten Ontario waters, and have only been compounded by population growth and climate change.

In her report, Saxe said she is also very concerned about the province’s lack of commitment to continue funding for Ontario’s source water protection program. This program addresses hundreds of significant threats to municipal drinking water sources across the province, she noted.

“Through Walkerton’s tragedy, we learned how important it is to be vigilant about protecting sources of drinking water,” said Saxe. “This is no time for the government to turn its back on source water protection.”

Lastly, Saxe warned that the Ontario government has not done enough to stop agricultural runoff into fresh water, a major contributor to toxic algae blooms. Some of it comes from the practice of spreading manure and fertilizer on snow or frozen ground. Quebec and Manitoba have banned the practice according to Saxe, because it is “harmful, completely ineffective and contributes to excessive runoff – a needless waste.”

To reduce the pollutants pouring into Ontario’s waters, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario report advises the government to:

  • Require every municipality with combined sewers to do everything practicable to virtually eliminate combined sewer overflows within a reasonable time, including Pollution Prevention Control Plans, stormwater fees, and green infrastructure.
  • Ensure dramatic reductions in phosphorus runoff from farms with clear targets, effective monitoring, and financial incentives.
  • Set up-to-date limits on toxic industrial wastewater, i.e., require industries to use the best current technology to keep toxics out of Ontario waters and to virtually eliminate discharges of persistent toxic substances.
  • Require municipalities, and encourage contractors, to minimize road salt pollution of Ontario waters.

For more information, and to read the full report, visit: www.eco.on.ca/our-reports/environmental-protection

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