Who will pay for cleaning up Canada's raw sewage?

New federal regulations will require hundreds of Canadian municipalities to install or upgrade sewage treatment systems over the next few decades. With their tiny tax bases, the question becomes: Who will pay?

New federal regulations are forcing a new cost on small municipalities

The small Newfoundland community of St. Anthony cannot afford $15 million to build a plant to treat sewage, which currently flows into the bay. (Town of St. Anthony)

In St. Anthony, they call the flow from their 23 outfalls "bubbles." That's really just a friendly Newfoundland way of saying raw sewage.

The town of 2,700, at the very northern tip of Newfoundland, really wants to stop pumping sewage into its bustling harbour. Unfortunately, it can't afford the $15 million it will cost to do the job.

Regardless, the federal government says St. Anthony falls in the high risk category for sewage treatment and is going to have to build a primary and secondary treatment plant by 2020.

If that's not done, this main service centre on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula is going to be in contravention of Environment Canada's Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, which are expected to be finalized by the end of this year.

"How can you go in and put in infrastructure that you can't pay for," asks Mayor Ernest Simms. "We can't do it with the funding that's here now."

Therein lies the crux of the problem for hundreds of towns across Canada that find themselves in the same position as St. Anthony. They want to clean their wastewater but they need help from senior levels of government to do it.

The problem is particularly acute for smaller communities such as St. Anthony. They have a small tax base to begin with and, in many cases, a declining and aging population.

"Municipalities are already overburdened with a significant infrastructure deficit in this country. So any additional regulations are only going to further see that problem grow," argues Berry Vrbanovic, the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Vrbanovic agrees that the smaller members of the FCM are in a particularly tough spot.

One of St. Anthony's 23 effluent outlets pours raw sewage into the bay. These will have to be replaced by a full treatment plant by as early as 2020. ((CBC))

"They have to have special consideration because otherwise those communities are not going to be able to meet their broader obligations," he says.

St. Anthony offers a perfect example. As Mayor Simms observes, the town already spends anywhere from 25 to 40 per cent of its $2 million annual budget on drinking water.

Add in the cost of wastewater treatment and the community won't have money for anything else — nothing for roads, nothing for the arena, nothing for parks.


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The Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations were designed by Environment Canada in close consultation the FCM.

The federal department wants to put towns and cities into three categories of risk when it comes to their wastewater systems — high, medium and low — meaning they have to be following the rules by 2020, 2030 and 2040 respectively.

Environment Canada can give these municipalities time to come into compliance but much of the money will have to come from Infrastructure Canada and the provinces.

Environment Canada estimates the total cost for upgrades across the country at nearly $6 billion. But the FCM thinks it will be significantly more.

"Working in partnership with provinces, territories and municipalities, our government has made significant commitments to funding wastewater infrastructure, and will continue to do so in the future," Denis Lebel, the federal minister in charge of infrastructure, told CBC News in a written statement.

Environment Minister Peter Kent told the House of Commons Monday that the municipalities and provinces need to do their part.

"All of these costs could be easily managed if only municipalities made wastewater management a priority," Kent said.

FCM and Infrastructure Canada consider the wastewater issue a detail in the negotiations about a long-term Canadian infrastructure plan that includes everything from roads to drinking water.

But it is more than just a detail to Simms and the people of St. Anthony.

It's a bad smell at low tide in the summer. It's used toilet paper on the edges of the harbour. And it's a potentially bankrupting financial nightmare.

Without help from Ottawa, adds Simms, "we can't do it. We simply can't do it."