Marcus Gee of the Globe and Mail wrote a passionate column last week about the need to "take a dispassionate look at Toronto's sewage treatment." In his column, Gee describes a recent City of Toronto vote, in which councillors approved a shiny new ultra-violet light treatment system for the Ashbridges Bay Sewage Treatment Plant.
City staff and two consulting firms recommended a cheaper option: chlorinating partially-treated sewage before releasing it into Lake Ontario. "It seems a little mad to solicit staff advice on such a devilishly complex issue only to reject it. Why on Earth does city hall hire expert staff if it is going to ignore them?" asks Gee.
Councillor Gord Perks explains: "The general manager of water believes the right thing to do is spend less money and pollute more. I believe the opposite."
Both Gee and Perks show passion with their words: and so they should. Sewage treatment plants are the largest surface water polluters on Lake Ontario. They are incredibly expensive for municipalities to manage. And our cities can't work without them.
Gee is flat-out wrong, though, when he paints Perks as a naive environmentalist-turned-politician who ignores the sober, sage advice of the impartial consultants and staff. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper reviewed the reports and we found them, in all cases, to be lacking in critical information that decision-makers like Perks need to do their jobs well. We also found misrepresentations of basic facts that skew the results in favour of the cheapest "solution".
The preamble to the Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant disinfection report, to give one example, can make your blood boil (check out page iv). It's not rational, informed, or even accurate:
- Contrary to what the consulting team states, the current disinfection process (chlorination/de-cholorination) is not "effective". Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant is the largest polluter of surface waters in Canada - hardly a sign of efficacy.
- The current disinfection process is not doing a good enough job protecting the adjacent Woodbine-Ashbridges Bay Beach. The beach was posted 11% of the time in 2010. The maximum beach postings allowed by the Ontario government is 5%.
- It is true that the current disinfection process is commonly used at large wastewater plants on Lake Ontario, but these plants are also the biggest surface water polluters in the nation - hardly a ringing endorsement for chlorination.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper reviewed the reports, and we found that they all blithely promote a similar paradigm: environmental protection is nice, if we can achieve it, but there are a lot of different factors to consider when making a decision. In other words: clean water is a choice.
The Environmental Assessment report gives compliance with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act a weight of just less than half of the overall 1/3 weight it gives to environmental criteria (social and economic are the other two indices). UV treatment scores highest on CEPA compliance, but that's weighted against greenhouse gas emissions as well as social criterion such as public opinion and economic criterion such as dependence on commodities.
The problem is, that's not how the law works. In our country, consultants, staff, and politicians cannot pick and choose which environmental laws they want to comply with. CEPA, the Fisheries Act, the Ontario Environmental Protection Act: these are binding, enforceable laws. They aren't catalogues of fanciful policy objectives that it would be "nice" to achieve some day. They are the bare minimum of what every person, corporation and government must do.
By focusing first on compliance with environmental laws, Councillor Perks and every other councillor that voted for UV treatment made the right decision.