The Don Valley flooded again this week. Heavy rains overwhelmed the river and the city’s aging stormwater and sewer pipes. The system overflowed and lower Toronto got wet.
With swimming season upon us, you’ll hear about bacteria in the water at the beaches. That comes from toilets flushing into an outdated sewer system.
But what about industrial pollution? Chemicals and other nasty substances are also flushed into the city’s sewer system. Many businesses do it all day every day. Everyone from dentists to dry-cleaners to the island airport need somewhere to put their wastewater.
The City’s rules ensure polluters track and pay for their pollution
The City strives to collect the industrial wastewater, carry it to a sewage treatment plant, and separate the clean from the dirty before releasing the water into Lake Ontario.
It’s a big job. Some contaminants are very dangerous - like mercury. Some are nearly impossible to filter out. That’s why the City of Toronto has a sewer use bylaw. It spells out what can go into the sewer system, when special agreements are required, and how the city can hold violators accountable.
The rules makes sense - the City is responsible for managing and treating everything that ends up in one of its pipes. By limiting the nasty stuff that people can dump in the first place, the City doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of cleaning up after would-be polluters.
So why is the City back-tracking on the sewer use by-law?
Changes to Toronto sewer use rules make it easier to pollute
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper submitted a letter of comment to the City today. We highlighted our concerns that a proposed by-law change would make it easier for industrial sewer users to put nasty things into the sewer - and thus, put nasty things into Lake Ontario.
Here’s how it works right now: the bylaw lists 39 specific pollutants, including arsenic, lead, DDT, and PCBs. If you expect to release any of these pollutants into the City’s sewer, you have to file regular reports with the City. This gives the City the information it needs to try to protect Toronto waters.
Under the new rules, you can flush those pollutants into the sewer system without ever notifying the City - you just need to keep the amounts low.
The new rules could be bad news for Lake Ontario
This is a big change, one that won’t be good for the city and won’t be good for your waters. It means that the City no longer knows who is putting pollutants into the system. It means that the City will be solely responsible for ensuring that what flows into the Don Valley or Lake Ontario doesn’t hurt the natural environment (a nearly impossible task). And it means that small amounts of pollution can accumulate to create bigger, more concentrated amounts with little warning. The reason PCBs, DDT and similar pollutants were banned in the first place is because of their tendency to build up in the environment over time.
We’re hoping that our submission will help the City realize the flaws with this part of the by-law before the next version is released in the fall.
Other aspects of the by-law change could be very good for the environment. The City wants to ensure that all restaurants install proper grease collectors, which would help keep fat and grease out of the sewer pipes. “Fatbergs” cause millions of dollars in damage and maintenance expenses to municipal sewer systems every year. They create clogs that make backups and overflows worse.
Will Toronto choose leadership over leniency?
When it was created in 2000, Toronto’s sewer use by-law was a model. Cities across Canada and the U.S. looked at Toronto’s by-law and adapted it. Fourteen years later, the City is in danger of taking a step backward at a time that the public expects better watershed protections.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper will keep following this process. We hope to see a new version of the by-law this fall.