How safe is your wastewater? Environment Canada won’t tell you
WATCH: A GlobalNews.ca investigation uncovered evidence Environment Canada has deemed many of this country’s water treatment facilities as high-risk, but refuses to reveal which ones. Shirlee Engel reports.
Is your community’s wastewater treatment safe? The federal government won’t say.
The federal government has brought in regulations meant to clean up wastewater treatment in communities across the country, some of which do nothing to their wastewater before dumping it – in lakes, rivers or oceans, often endangering wildlife or their own drinking water intake systems.
But the department won’t say what communities it deemed “high risk.”
A Global News freedom-of-information request for just that information came back almost completely redacted – all details censored but the province.
The reasons given? The redacted content had to do with provincial governments; with federal-provincial consultations; the vulnerability of buildings or infrastructure; advice or recommendations for a minister.
We do know that Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces are overrepresented among high-risk communities, as are First Nations reserves (at least, we assume they’re reserves: Their jurisdiction’s listed as “federal” and Environment Canada refused to explain what that means).
We also know that 124 communities originally listed as high-risk are now exempt from the rules altogether because they’re too small. Under pressure from associations representing municipalities, Environment Canada watered down the rules as originally written so they apply to fewer communities, on the grounds that the smallest ones don’t have the resources to build proper water treatment infrastructure, anyway.
‘All that information will be publicly available’
The Environment Canada official who helped craft the regulations says the breakdown was never that specific, and they’re now working with communities on a new list of who ranks where so they’ll know what new standards they’ll have to meet, and in what time frame.
“There were no names, necessarily, connected to that information. … That information was used for basically an aggregate purpose of assigning a general estimation of the benefits and costs when the regulations were being developed,” said James Arnott, who heads the wastewater section of Environment Canada’s Environmental Stewardship Branch.
“We’re developing the actual list in terms of compliance right now. … All that information will be publicly available.”
But he couldn’t explain the heavily redacted documents.
“I’m not familiar with that list, per se, but the information that I know in terms of what was done for the cost-benefit analysis, it was about general levels of treatment per numbers of systems across the country.”
‘When appropriate information is withheld and something
goes wrong, people lose faith in how they are governed’
Water expert Bob Sandford can understand a reluctance to call out Canada’s worst wastewater treatment systems by name.
“It does produce problems for them – the attractiveness of those communities for outside investment. Also the political circumstances within those communities, and the public view of how they have been managed over time,” he said.
“But I still think you should be able to access that information.”
“If governments are going to continue to hide facts, to manipulate information, to alter and to use public relations to deflect attention from what’s really actually happening, it’s going to be very hard for the public to understand … where they stand.
“This makes you more vulnerable” – economically, for instance, if you’re on the hook when infrastructure breaks down.
It’s also a matter of trust, Sandford added.
“When appropriate information is withheld and something goes wrong, people lose faith in how they are governed and the institutions upon which they rely.”
At the same time, you want the public on board for expensive investments in water infrastructure that stays out of sight and out of mind unless something goes wrong.
One of the reasons so much of Canada’s water infrastructure is in such rough shape is that its maintenance, upgrading and replacement are profoundly unsexy, profoundly pricey projects – “invisible,” Sandford has said in the past – so it’s often hard to make the case when budget season rolls around.
Even the changes envisioned by Ottawa’s new legislation come with price tags causing communities to balk.
“The cost associated with meeting those regulations are considered to be outrageous for many small towns and municipalities we represent,” says Churence Rogers, president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador and Mayor of the Town of Centreville-Wareham-Trinity.
“We have a number of towns and cities in this province that are on boil water advisories and not providing safe drinking water at certain points in time to our residents. And here we are, they’re asking us to carve out a significant chunk of money to build wastewater treatment plants.
“It’s a matter of prioritizing, for many towns.”
While towns can apply for federal infrastructure money, there’s nothing set aside specifically for wastewater treatment. Some communities have said they won’t put in the changes because they just can’t afford it. “‘We’ll deal with that when we come to it.’ That’s the attitude of many municipal leaders.’”
At the same time, Rogers said, the idea of censoring the names of high-risk communities “makes no sense to me.”
“If my town is high risk because of the outfalls that we have I have no problem sharing that information.”
‘Why exactly is it being hidden?’
Watch: Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg councillor Bill Ottawa talks about his community’s wastewater infrastructure – or lack thereof
Years after millions of dollars were invested in the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg’s water facilities, they still only serve – “at best” – about 40 per cent of the community near Maniwaki, Que, says Councillor Bill Ottawa.
“It’s a big concern. I mean, when we think of Canada, and the people living in Canada, we generally think that everybody has good infrastructure. To be in a community where we have to get our water shipped in … I don’t think that’s something that should be going on,” he said. “It’s not a pleasant situation.”
He figures the community’s wastewater system is considered high risk “if there is such a list” – but he doesn’t know.
“I have no idea what their thinking is behind [censoring community names],” he said. “As a citizen of this reserve I would like to know where we stand in terms of vulnerability. … Why exactly is it being hidden?”
With files from Shirlee Engel and Rebecca Lindell
READ: Environment Canada’s response to Global News wastewater ATIP request (there isn’t much to read)