Wastewater treatment in Canada

Wastewater treatment is unfortunately a big issue in Canada, and has been shown to have possible significant environmental impacts. Wastewater comes from many sources: “sanitary sewage [which] is generated from homes, businesses, institutions and industries” but also stormwater which comes from rain and snow. (Government of Canada, 2013) The issue seems to be related to a lack of enforcement of Environmental Assessment (EA) laws over the country. In fact, although laws are present for the regulation of wastewater, few provinces seem to apply it and monitor the water quality.

The Ecojustice environmental group states that: “each year, 3,700 sewage treatment plants release about 6 trillion litres of sewage, 150 billion litres of that untreated, into our waterways…”(Ecojustice, 2012) Thus sewage is being dumped in waterways without any kind of prior treatment in some cases, revealing the amplitude of the problem. Moreover the following video illustrates well this issue with a real life example showing the untreated sewage dumped into a river in BC. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTMtlWKqblo

Furthermore, as stated in the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement of the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, “Treatment levels range from very good in many areas to poor or no treatment, mostly on the coasts.” (Government of Canada, 2012) Thus authorities are aware of the problem, yet as we can see, few changes are being applied in this domain.

According to the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement, some of the possible consequences of that lack of enforcement of the wastewater laws are: “fish kills; algal blooms; the destruction of habitat from sedimentation, debris, and increased water flow; and short- and long-term toxicity from chemical contaminants; along with the accumulation and magnification of chemicals at higher levels of the food chain.”; (Government of Canada, 2012) as well human health problems might arise from the consumption of fish, and possibly contaminated drinking water from sewage link to groundwater. (Government of Canada, 2012)


Photo source: The Great Lakes Sewage Report Card, a Sierra Legal Report, 2006.

In addition, according to Mae Burrows of the Labour Environmental Alliance, studies have found a correlation between the toxin found in sewage and salmon’s reproductive issues. (Ecojustice, 2012) Also according to other studies, Beluga whales present in the St. Lawrence have such high level of organochlorine in their organism, that the latter should be considered a hazardous waste. Actually, the Belugas are victim of many diseases: “tumours, ulcers, skeletal disordes widespread viral and other problems, including an alarming inability to reproduce…” (Sierra Club, 1999) As well human health issues may occur due to industrial wastewater release into the rivers and lakes from many sources: the mine tailings, the oil sand’s industry, the salmon farms…In fact, one could consider the latter to be some of the most contaminated sewages, containing large amounts of chemicals, thus their release without enough prior treatment would cause major environmental impacts.

Furthermore, one of the issues behind those impacts seem to be the lack of harmonization between the different provincial standards for water quality in Canada; thus parties are urging for the implementation of national standards, which is also the goal of the new wastewater regulation. (Government of Canada, 2012) In fact, in my opinion one can’t vary the thresholds between different provinces especially for highly dangerous chemical compounds, which nonetheless has been the case.   Moreover, concerning the monitoring program, municipalities have mentioned that “The need to perform all tests in an accredited laboratory has also been identified as an expensive measure that would provide little environmental benefit”. (Government of Canada, 2012) Therefore acquiring the resources and the funds necessary for the monitoring program seems to be another important issue pointed out by municipalities. (Government of Canada, 2012) Finally, at a conference in Ottawa in July 2012, the minister Peter Kent said that municipalities will have between 10 to 30 years to apply the new regulations requiring secondary treatment to wastewater. Therefore one could question this change and wonder whether it will ever be in place. (CBC, 2012)


CBC. “New wastewater regulations announced by Ottawa”. CBC news. (2012)

Elaine Macdonald. “New sewage treatment rules fall short”. Ecojustice (2012)

Government of Canada. Environment Canada.“Wastewater management”. (2013)

Government of Canada. “Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations”. Canada Gazette. Vol. 146, No. 15 (2012)

Sierra Club. The National Sewage Report Card (number two), Rating the treatment methods and Discharges of 21 Canadian cities, A Sierra Legal Defense Fund Report. (1999)


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