May 13, 2013 9:00 am

Canada’s method of wastewater treatment ‘backwards’

To Mark Mattson, Canada’s old-fashioned method of wastewater treatment is a national embarrassment.

“We’re probably one of the most backwards countries in terms of treating our water,” says Mattson, who runs the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, an organization that advocates for clean, safe water.

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Until recently, municipalities were only required to use primary treatment, meaning wastewater plants would clean solid waste – or “floatables” – from the water. Primary treatment doesn’t include liquids, such as spoiled milk, or cleaning products and even the old medications that get poured down our drains.

“We might have removed at best about 70 per cent of the suspended solids here,” says North Vancouver Mayor, Darrell Mussatt at the Lions Gate Wastewater Treatment plant.

Cities such as Vancouver, on the Pacific Ocean, have been banking on the old notion that ‘dilution is the solution to the pollution’ for years – that water dilutes and assimilates waste.

“We should never be putting our crap into our drinking water,” says Mattson.

Last year, Environment Canada announced new federal regulations that say primary treatment plants don’t cut it anymore. Now, cities must use secondary wastewater treatment or better to remove bacteria and other things that have dissolved in our wastewater. Similar wastewater standards have been in place in the U.S. for almost 40 years.

“We’ve got to do a better job of treating that water before it gets somewhere. There’s no doubt about it,” says Mussatto. “We realize that now, the legislation says we have to meet that now and we’re planning on that.”

But the new upgrade comes with a hefty price tag. In order to meet new federal regulations, Vancouver has to upgrade two of its five treatment plants at a cost of 1.5 billion dollars.

“If we had to take it on all ourselves it would be almost impossible. Our tax rates would increase so significantly that I’m sure that the taxpayers would rebel,” says Mussatto.

Cities across Canada have been given a deadline of 2040 to upgrade their plants, but many are left wondering how they will pay for costly upgrades required to meet the new standards.

In Toronto, billions of litres of raw sewage and storm water are discharged into Lake Ontario each year.

“We have this dubious distinction of being 1 of 43 polluted areas of concern in the Great Lakes basin largely related to the pollution generated from our combined sewer overflows,” says Michael D’Andrea, Toronto’s Director of Water Infrastructure Management.

“The older areas of the city are serviced by combined sewers wherein a single pipe will carry sewage as well as storm water run-off when it rains,” he says.

16×9 correspondent, Jackson Proskow, travelled across the country to discover just how much of what we flush down our drains ends up in rivers, lakes and oceans – and ends up coming back through our kitchen taps.

Don’t miss the full story this Friday at 8pm AT/MT, 9pm CT, 10pm ET/PT.

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