Mike De Souza
CanWest News Service
OTTAWA – Canadian cities and communities need a minimum of $10 billion to $20 billion over the next two decades to clean up waste water treatment facilities that are threatening the public health of Canadians, warns a confidential Environment Canada document obtained by Canwest News Service.
“The environmental performance of many waste water systems is not adequate, putting human and environmental health at risk,” reads the briefing note, released under the Access to Information Act. “To address the existing infrastructure deficit, the waste water sector in Canada is in need of a sustained and significant investment over the coming decades.”
The document, prepared in May 2006 for Michael Horgan, the deputy minister, explained that it was difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of infrastructure needs, but said that major investments would be required to upgrade and operate waste water systems to meet national standards.
“The management of waste water is complex. These effluents are the largest single source of pollution by volume to surface water and include a large number of pollutants,” said the document. “Reducing the discharge of these pollutants requires a number of interventions ranging from source control to end-of-pipe measures.”
Horgan was advised in the document to personally brief Rona Ambrose – who was environment minister at the time – about the issue to prepare her for upcoming federal provincial discussions in June 2006. The document also highlighted that Environment Canada had first raised the issue in 2002, stressing the importance of national standards for waste water in order to enforce existing anti-pollution regulations.
“The absence of such a (national standards) regulation for waste water makes difficult the consistent application of the federal Fisheries Act prohibition on deposit of a deleterious substance in water frequented by fish,” said the document. “It is likely that the required investments in infrastructure will be at minimum in the order of $10 to $20 billion over the next 15-20 years.”
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says the recommendations in the briefing note are significant in its lobbying efforts for more money from the federal government to address what it estimates is a $123-billion deficit for all of its crumbling infrastructure, roads and bridges.
“From our perspective, the estimate and the acknowledgment made has been extremely helpful,” said Gord Steeves, a Winnipeg city councillor who is president of the federation. “It’s one of those issues where you have the unique situation of small municipalities across the country, really being in a difficult position of trying to fund this very expensive (waste water) infrastructure and to try to do it on the backs of local ratepayers and property taxes is very difficult.”
In a report released last week, the federal environment commissioner lambasted the government for failing to clean up waste water that is polluting 15 of the 17 hot spots in the Great Lakes.
Environment Minister John Baird has said that he intends to introduce national standards to crack down on raw sewage from municipalities. Despite pledging to use a portion of a $33 billion “Building Canada” infrastructure fund to invest in sewage and waste water projects over the next seven years, environmentalists say the government still has not delivered enough money.
“We know that it’s more efficient and less expensive to do it sooner rather than later,” said Aaron Freeman, director of policy at Environmental Defence. “Despite the government’s promises in the throne speech, they have done very little to back up that promise.”
NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen said he was not surprised about the Harper government’s response to the problem.
“It wouldn’t be the first nor last time this government is going to ignore its own advice from Environment Canada,” Cullen said after question period. “The truth of most of these environmental issues is usually suppressed or ignored within this government, whether its climate change or waste water, that’s just been consistent.”
Garry Keller, a spokesperson for Baird, said the government was trying to clean up a mess left when the Liberals were in power.
“Building Canada will support infrastructure projects, such as sewage treatment systems, that contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment for Canadians and businesses, a stronger economy, and a more secure Canada,” said Keller. “The Liberals did nothing when they were in power to toughen regulations on sewage and waste water.”