Northern towns named in provincial report say sewage pollution problems are expensive and complex

Ontario's environmental commissioner has named and shamed some northern towns for contaminating local waters with sewage, but many of the towns say the situation is not that simple.

Environmental commissioner's report highlights communities where sewage mixes with storm water

Most of the 12 sewer bypasses in West Nipissing last year were not at the facilities listed in the Environment Commissioner's report, but here in the Sturgeon River near the Sturgeon Falls lift station. (Erik White/CBC )

The provincial environment commissioner has named eight towns in the northeast where sewage is polluting local waters.

But municipal leaders say they are doing their best to fix the complicated problem detailed in the report earlier this month.

They include Kapuskasing, Moonbeam, Black River-Matheson, Iroquois Falls, Temiskaming Shores, Cobalt, West Nipissing and Callander, while another case of sewage pollution is highlighted on Porcupine Lake in Timmins.

"It doesn't offend me or my community that we're mentioned. The reality is we know we're doing the best we can," says Kapuskasing Mayor Al Spacek.

His town is on the list of 44 communities where stormwater mixes with sewage, which increases the chance of contamination when the system overflows into surrounding lakes and rivers, such as during a major rainfall.

Despite a new $2 million plant in the hamlet of Field, West Nipissing still sees partially treated sewage discharged into the nearby Sturgeon River. (Erik White/CBC )

Spacek says Kapuskasing has spent $19 million over the last 12 years to upgrade the town's sewers, largely with the help of provincial funding but they are not yet halfway done. 

"It is impossible to undertake the magnitude of this type of reconstruction on the backs of the municipal taxpayer," says Spacek.

West Nipissing is on the environmental commissioner's list twice for the lagoon in Verner and the sewage treatment plant in Field.

Chief administrative officer Jay Barbeau says it's "never good" to be mentioned in a report but says citizens shouldn't think that the town doesn't take its responsibility to public safety and the environment "very seriously."

Jay Barbeau is the chief administrative officer of West Nipissing. (Erik White/CBC )

He says in the case of Field, $2 million has recently been put into the plant that serves only 40 homes, but there are still sewage overflows that end up in the Sturgeon River, but Barbeau says there is no sign of environmental impact.

"It isn't something we can just wave a wand," he says, adding the town is looking at how to keep water from weeping tiles and downspouts from flowing into the sewers and overloading the system. 

Environmental commissioner Diane Saxe says that is the kind of solution she wants to see from cities and towns instead of just focusing on building expensive sewer infrastructure.

"When the municipalities are saying they're doing everything they can, it's not right," she says.

Building a multi-million dollar sewer plant is exactly what Cobalt avoided when it installed a constructed wetland to naturally process sewage that is treated by the bullrushes and other plants.

The sewage in Cobalt is treated using a natural process involving cattails in a constructed wetland. (© Royalty-Free/CORBIS)

But because the plants are dormant during the winter months and phosphorous levels go up slightly, Mayor Tina Sartoretto says the province sees their solution as a problem.

"The issue that the Ministry of the Environment has raised is such a minute one that it's basically beyond the pale that they keep harassing us over this," she says. 

"The squeeze has to be worth the juice. For us, it's like 'Is it really serious?' and it's not."

In some northeastern towns what you flush down the toilet is ending up in your local lake or river. That fact was highlighted in a recent report by the environmental commissioner of Ontario. The CBC's Erik White joined us to talk about the communities named in the report and how they are reacting to being singled out. 8:33

Callander mayor Hec Lavigne also feels his town is on the list in error, since their sewer system doesn't mix stormwater and wastewater, although like most in the north it does need to upgrade its infrastructure.

The environmental commissioner's report makes special mention of Timmins, where smelly sewer outflows in Porcupine Lake have upset local residents.

The report says the Ministry of Environment did investigate the complaints from the Friends of the Porcupine River Watershed, but "accepted the city's excuses for its non-compliance, and extended the deadlines for system upgrades."

The Environment Commissioner's report highlighted the problem of sewage being released into Porcupine Lake in Timmins and the lack of response from the provincial government. (Porcupine Lake Information Group )

"It felt good to know our concerns are being raised at a higher level," says Angie Corson of South Porcupine, who is vice-president of the Friends group. 

The City of Timmins did not return phone calls, but the ministry says it is working with municipal officials to find a solution, with some progress expected by the end of the year. 

This report from the environmental commissioner was released just days before the provincial government announced it was closing the office and handing its work over to the auditor general. 

Saxe thinks the sewer issue, which the province has known about for decades, is a good example of why Ontario needs an environmental commissioner.

"If you're not going to have a watchdog, the alternative is to have blind faith in the government," she says.  

"I don't think that's safe."

Ontario's Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe says in a report released Tuesday that the Doug Ford government has 'gutted' climate change programs that were beginning to reap benefits for the province. (CBC)

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca