Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities Posted on October 7, 2013 (updated: March 29, 2017)

Keep sewage pollution out of the Great Lakes Basin

Ecojustice scientist Liat PodolskyLiat PodolskyScientist

Every year, Ontario municipalities dump billions of litres of untreated or partially treated sewage into local waterways — harming species, impacting water quality and closing beaches. As we saw with recent events in Calgary and Toronto, flooding and climate change are exacerbating the problem of sewage pollution, by overwhelming antiquated sewer systems.

Flooding events such as these are expected to get more frequent, which would result in even more untreated sewage entering our water bodies over time. Adding to the problem is the massive infrastructure deficit, and government infrastructure funding that is unpredictable and insufficient.

What we’re doing about it
Tomorrow morning, Ecojustice will release The Great Lakes Sewage Report Card [2013]. The report analyzes 12 Ontario municipalities to see how they’re dealing with sewage treatment and ranks each municipality’s performance. The results weren’t great (See rankings below).

I’ve been studying this issue for the last year. What I learned was that heavy rain can flood sewer systems. That forces wastewater treatment plants to release sewage into their local body of water with little or no treatment. Also, some municipalities have outdated sewer systems that combine stormwater and sewage in the same pipe. Heavy rain or snowmelt can overload these pipes, spewing sewage into your lakes, rivers and streams.

How does sewage pollution affect you?
Sewage pollution is a foul cocktail of human waste, bacteria, toxic chemicals and other contaminants that reduce water quality. Contact with water contaminated by sewage pollution can make you ill, including infections of the skin, eye, nose and throat as well as stomach problems.
Because of that, and various other factors, most of the municipalities we analyzed earned a satisfactory grade, while others are doing poorly. When it comes to the water that sustains our communities and species, you deserve better.

Municipalities, ranked from last to first:

12. Windsor (-C)

11. London (-C)

10. Toronto (C)

9. St. Catharines (C)

8. Sudbury (C)

7. Sarnia (C+)

6. Brockville (B)

5. Midland (B)

4. Kitchener-Waterloo (B+)

3. Collingwood (B+)

2. York and Durham (B+)

1. Peel Region (A-)

Who’s responsible for keeping the Great Lakes great?
On Aug. 8, 2013, we sent our report to several city councillors and mayors in the 12 municipalities. We asked them to address this problem and consider our recommendations, which include:

Getting municipalities to prioritize sewage infrastructure investment and having all levels of government fund major infrastructure improvements to upgrade antiquated sewer systems that are prone to bypasses or overflows during heavy rainfall or snowmelt.
Investing in green infrastructure, such as green roofs, wetlands, trees and vegetation, which can capture rainfall and reduce the amount of stormwater that may overwhelm sewer systems.
Reporting all releases of inadequately treated sewage to Ontarians so you’re better able to protect your family and community from water contaminated by sewage.

Why it matters
Reducing our exposure to harmful contaminants will make Ontario healthier. The Great Lakes are a treasure trove of biological diversity, with significance to wildlife species and humans. Protecting and conserving the health of the Great Lakes for present and future generations must be a priority.

What you can do
Help us spread the word about the problem of sewage pollution in Ontario. Below you’ll find an infographic that you can download and share on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or via email. Use the hashtag #sewagepollution.

Or leave us a comment below, saying why you want to keep sewage pollution out of the Great Lakes.

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