Jack Littlepage can’t help but feel appalled whenever he thinks about the Capital Regional District (CRD) spending millions of dollars to construct a sewage treatment plant.
Working with other scientists in the region, the former University of Victoria oceanography professor has spent years researching the environmental impact of dumping raw sewage into the ocean and whether a sewage treatment plant is necessary in Victoria. The answer is always no.
But the federal government plans to spend billions of dollars over the next several years in support of new national standards that are meant to crack down on raw sewage pumping into Canadian waterways. Those new rules mandate secondary treatment of all sewage in places like Victoria, but Littlepage said the problem is that the regulations are mainly good for freshwater and don’t allow any variances on the discharge.
“We are forced to obey freshwater regulations that have nothing to do with our problems here. They need to be interpreted in light of the environment to which they are being discharged,” said Littlepage, noting the city could fight the regulations since the effects of wastewater discharge aren’t the same everywhere.
“It’s beyond belief that someone hasn’t said okay government, this is wrong, it’s wasting your money, our money and accomplishing nothing. We are listed as a critical discharge into the ocean and yet there is no data to support this and there has never been an environmental impact on the comparison of on-land treatment discharge.”
Victoria’s current sewage system uses collector pipes that connect with two long ocean outfalls in the Strait of Juan de Fuca — one at Macaulay Point in Esquimalt and the other at Victoria’s Clover Point. Before entering the outfalls, the effluent receives preliminary treatment through screens that remove anything larger than a pea. The resulting wastewater resembles a thin grey soup.
Since the screening does not remove metals, grease or other chemicals, the CRD has operated an exemplary source control program aimed at reducing the contaminants discharged by industry, businesses, institutions and households.
Does it or does it not have deleterious effects?
Scientists have long debated whether Greater Victoria truly needs to change its way of streaming sewage into ocean, writing numerous reports touching on sediments in the vicinity of the outfalls, chemicals and pharmaceuticals found in the effluent, the impacts on marine life and any risks to public health.
According to scientific reports, the outfalls pose no public health hazard since effluent only comes to the surface once or twice a year. As for the marine environment, the effluent does have some measurable impact in that it changes the invertebrates living in sediments around the outfalls, reduces species richness and is the source of a greater abundance of organisms able to tolerate high levels of organic loading.
But Littlepage noted the impacts aren’t necessarily negative — the environment is rich and thriving due to nutrients in the effluent.
Marine scientists have also concluded that conditions off the present outfalls are similar to those off the outfalls from secondary treatment plants in other municipalities. A treatment plant, however, would be effective in removing or metabolizing a variety of potentially toxic chemicals (from household products, microplastics and pharmaceuticals) in the effluent that would be concentrated in sludge, which would have to be further managed to prevent it from re-entering the ocean.
Scientists have also found there is no indication that chemicals discharged in the past have caused harm in the marine environment, but agreed a number of issues still require further investigation.
In contrast, critics have cited a litany of environmental concerns, ranging from oxygen depletion, toxic contaminants in the liquid waste being absorbed by the marine food chain, and fecal coliforms near outfalls posing a hazard to humans.
Where is the analysis, asks ocean physicist
Chris Garrett, a former professor of ocean physics at the University of Victoria, shares the same views as Littlepage, and has also grown frustrated and amazed there hasn’t been a rational, detailed analysis of what the problems really are or potentially might be.
He’s not against land-based sewage treatment, but believes instead of constructing an expensive plant, the money should be spent on looking at the pollutants, figuring out which ones are the real problem and how to get rid of them.
“If you said to a marine scientist, one of our primary goals is to protect the marine environment and we can spend several hundred million, this (sewage treatment plant) would not be high on our shopping list,” said Garrett, noting pharmaceuticals get highly diluted from Victoria’s strong tides and don’t pose a threat. Other pollutants like PBDEs (flame-retardant chemicals added to consumer products) are a cause for concern, but often get into the marine environment by various routes like river run off and contaminated sediments.
“I’d like to see people take a deep breath and say we will appeal to the feds for a reclassification of Victoria not as a high risk — which is ridiculous — but medium risk with a deadline of 2030 or 2040. That would give people time to discuss what the problems might be now or in the future and to do further investigations.”
Glenn Harris is a senior scientist with the CRD and is tasked with compliance monitoring. He’s heard the arguments from scientists about the necessity of a sewage treatment plant, but noted the region is out of compliance with federal and provincial regulations — which were put in place for a reason.
According to Harris, the volume of effluent at each of the two outfalls is just over 40,000 cubic metres per day and Victoria exceeds the regulations on a number of things, such as effluent toxicity and bacteria. Adding a secondary treatment system will not only put Victoria in line with government regulations, but will also reduce a lot of the contaminants that cause concern.
“We’ve had that argument with the feds. They said here is our benchmark, here’s our regulations. They’ve been tasked with defining what protecting the human health and environment is and our monitoring shows we are not in compliance with that,” said Harris. “You can see the discharge of contaminants into the ocean. We can see that in the food chain. Killer whales are highly contaminated….and we know the contaminants are a significant stress and risk to those species.”
Regulations make secondary treatment mandatory
• In July 2012, the federal government revealed the Canada-wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent – a long list of regulations intended to “protect human health and the receiving environment” by reducing the 150 billion litres of sewage dumped into Canadian waterways each year.
• The regulations apply to any wastewater system designed to collect an average volume of 100 cubic metres or more of influent (water flowing into a plant for treatment) per day, and requires all Canadian municipalities (except those in the north) to move towards at least secondary treatment.
• At an estimated cost of $6 billion, the strategy is being implemented across the country, starting with high-risk locations by 2020, then medium-risk by 2030 and low-risk by 2040. Victoria has been deemed high risk.
• 2,650 wastewater systems in Canada are subject to the regulations and an estimated 75 per cent of the existing systems are already at the secondary level of treatment. Those that don’t come into compliance by the targeted date could face enforcement.
Secondary vs tertiary treatment
One consideration being discussed by the core area liquid waste management committee has been whether to treat the region’s wastewater to a secondary or tertiary level. The option identified by the committee will see secondary or tertiary treatment plants constructed at Clover and McLoughlin points.
Currently, the area’s sewage receives only preliminary treatment. Screens filter out particles larger than 6mm such as rocks, rags and plastics, which are collected and sent to landfill.
Primary treatment uses gravity to allow solids to settle, with grease, oil and fat skimmed off. Screening traps solid objects, and sedimentation by gravity removes suspended solids.
Secondary treatment removes dissolved organic matter that escapes primary treatment and uses bacteria to convert it into bacterial cells. The wastewater is then filtered by separating the treated liquid from the cells. Secondary treatment, the federal standard for a marine discharge, removes about 85 per cent of the suspended solids and biochemical oxygen demand.
Tertiary treatment improves the quality of the effluent using methods such as membrane filtration, ultraviolet disinfection and advanced oxidation. It can remove more than 99 per cent of impurities from wastewater, producing an effluent with almost drinking-water quality. Tertiary treatment would further reduce the contaminants in the liquid effluent destined for the ocean.
While each level of treatment results in a cleaner effluent, tertiary is more expensive. One estimate suggests that treating wastewater to a tertiary level would cost about $100 million more than secondary – an additional $84/year cost on average for households.
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