Are we getting richer with more pollution?

By Nancy Goucher, Water Campaign Manager, Environmental Defence

The eastern part of the Greater Toronto Area is growing like gangbusters. Growth is generally a good thing – the new houses and jobs fit with the province’s plan for this region. But this growth needs to come with careful planning and strategic investments, otherwise it may come back to bite us in the pocketbook later on.

And that’s what’s at stake with the Duffin Creek sewage plan in the Regions of York and Durham. The plan is to expand their wastewater treatment capacity in order to make room for another 400,000 residents in York Region. The wastewater treatment plant currently releases about 340 million litres of treated sewage into Lake Ontario each day. However, they would like to increase this to up to 630 million litres per day. That’s almost 200 million more litres of treated sewage flowing into Lake Ontario every single day In response, the Regions are proposing a cheap modification to the existing pipe where the effluent is discharged.

Those in favour of the expansion argue that it’s needed to support development and economic growth, that it meets the minimum provincial and federal wastewater regulations, and that there are no better alternatives.

Let’s look at the issue from a slightly different perspective. Should we really be using the source of our drinking water as a dumping ground for our waste? And is it truly in the public interest to continue to support the notion that allowing our water to become polluted is the best way to sustain a robust economy and gain wealth?

In a new book called Down the Drain: How we are Failing to Protect our Water Resources, Chris Wood and Ralph Pentland argue that in the future, it won’t be affordable to degrade water quality and use up water supplies in return for economic growth. They suggest that we will soon need to place a much higher value on nature and in particular, water, because such resources will become scarcer.

The proposed plan would certainly make Lake Ontario dirtier. The Duffin Creek plant applies secondary treatment to remove organic matter and suspended solids from sewage using a biological process, but this level of treatment is increasingly recognized as insufficient for protecting receiving waters. It cannot remove enough harmful material, such as nutrients and toxic chemicals. Releases of effluent after secondary treatment can still be toxic to fish and wildlife, can promote the growth of algae and bacteria, and can make beaches unsafe for swimming.

Ontario’s wastewater management is based on an outdated adage that “dilution is the solution to pollution”, which suggests that natural resources such as air and water are so plentiful that any pollution added to them will be diluted enough not to harm humans. Instead of breaking down, some chemicals accumulate and persist on the bottom of the water bodies and even make their way into the food chain. Even a small amount of these chemicals can interfere with human (and animal) reproduction and development, immune responsiveness, and neurological functions. Instead of relying on dilution, which externalizes the cost of pollution to the public, policymakers should reduce and eliminate the discharge of pollution into our environment and waterways.

The proposed project would see an increase in the amount of treated sewage deposited into Lake Ontario by the millions of litres each day. Most Ontarians know this lake is part of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence river basin, which is a globally significant resource that holds the most amount of available freshwater anywhere in the world. The five lakes together, supply drinking water to 40 million people on both sides of the border, and support strong fishing, boating and tourism economies based on healthy lake ecology. One of heaviest sources of burden on Great Lakes water quality is pollution from industrial and pollution sources.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been very good stewards of this global treasure to date, as demonstrated by our decisions to release more chemicals and nutrients into the lake, when we know there are more effective technologies that could be used. For instance, we have advanced wastewater treatment methods that use a combination of biological, physical and chemical processes to remove harmful materials before being discharged back into the environment. The use of these methods should be a minimum requirement for the Duffin Creek treatment plant.

You can take action by signing the PACT POW petition, a local grassroots network working to protect their waterfront. To learn more about what you can do to protect the Great Lakes, please visit Environmental Defence’s website.

Environmental Defence inspires change by connecting people with environmental issues that affect their daily lives in their homes, workplaces, and neighbourhoods. They address a range of issues, including protecting and restoring the Great Lakes, and keeping harmful toxic chemicals out of people and their homes.