Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Canada’s sewage problem still a national disgrace

Many Canadian cities continue to dump massive amounts of untreated sewage into the nation’s sensitive waterways, some in violation of permits that are supposed to protect the environment, a new national survey says.

Released today in Vancouver, the second National Sewage Report Card notes that over one trillion litres of untreated or only partially treated sewage is dumped into Canada’s rivers, lakes and oceans each year by some of the 21 cities surveyed.

This massive amount of waste “would cover the entire 7800 kilometre length of the Trans-Canada highway to a depth of nearly 20 metres — six storeys high,” states the report, which is published by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.

This second edition of the report (the first appeared in 1994) was prepared for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union, Local 24, the Georgia Strait Alliance and the Labour Environmental Alliance Society.

“Although there has been some substantial progress in some cities over the past five years, the lack of discernible progress in many cities is alarming,” the new report says. “Of the 21 cities documented in this report, five (Victoria, Saint John, Halifax, St. John’s and Dawson City) dump a combined total of 365 million litres of untreated sewage directly into the nation’s rivers, lakes and seas every day. Eleven other cities dump an average of 437 million litres of untreated sewage per day through by-passes and combined sewer overflows.”

Collectively, this flow of untreated sewage — a foul mix of water, human excrement, grease, motor oil, paint thinner, antifreeze and other substances containing toxic synthetic chemicals — would fill the main chamber of the House of Commons every three-and-a-half minutes.

Among the report’s other findings:

About 104 billion litres of only partially-treated, fish-killing sewage enters the Georgia Strait every year from one Vancouver sewage treatment plant.

Sewage containing high fecal coliform counts has made the Red River downstream of Winnipeg one of the most degraded water courses in Canada.

In Quebec, almost a fifth of the soft clam and blue mussel harvesting zones are closed due to municipal sewage pollution.

More than one third of the cities surveyed — 8 out of 21 — either violate provincial permits or hold no permits whatsoever.

Only one surveyed city, Calgary, has effective sewage treatment in place, earning the city a grade of A.

The report notes that legal remedies are there to stop the damage caused by this preventable pollution source. “Under the federal Fisheries Act, discharge of substances ‘deleterious to fish’ into fish-bearing waters is a major offence punishable by fines of up to $1 million and/or imprisonment. Many municipalities are chronic offenders. Yet charges are rarely laid,” the report says.

“Since we published our first report in 1994, we’ve seen no improvement in enforcement measures against municipalities,” says Karen Wristen, Executive Director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. “Of the 21 cities we investigated, only three have ever been charged by provincial authorities. I cannot think of any other law that is violated daily by so many, with nothing being done.”

The issue is not merely one of law enforcement. The National Sewage Report Card also observes that pollution entering fish-bearing waters can cause long-term effects on the health of fish populations.

“We now have studies that directly link reproductive failure in salmon with exposure to the kind of toxins found in sewage,” says Mae Burrows of the Labour Environmental Alliance. “As a society, we must stop our tolerance for destroying our salmon-bearing rivers with deadly toxins. Improving sewage treatment will also create green jobs.”

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