TORONTO – The City of Toronto has been told to inform the public when it bypasses water treatment plants and sends raw sewage into Lake Ontario, and other cities may have to follow suit.
The Ministry of the Environment concluded the public should be told when untreated sewage is sent into the lake after a complaint from the non-profit organization Lake Ontario Waterkeeper under the province’s environmental bill of rights.
“I think there’s a real demand for this information,” said Waterkeeper founder Mark Mattson. “There’s a lot of boaters, paddlers and hikers on many of the rivers and trails (near the lake)… and the ability to get the information at their fingertips before they go out would be really user friendly.”
Heavy rains often overwhelm Toronto’s old sewer system, forcing the city to bypass water treatment plants and send raw sewage into Lake Ontario, which Waterkeeper said happens about three times a month, year round. In July 2013, after more than 90 millimetres of rain in just two hours, more than a billion litres of sewage and storm water overflowed onto city streets and cascaded towards the harbour.
There is a flag system at 11 beaches in Toronto to alert swimmers to water quality issues, but there’s another 50 kilometres of shoreline in the city that is not monitored, added Mattson.
“There is no monitoring or information after wet weather as to where sewage or combined sewage and storm water is going into the lake,” he said. “It can be a threat to people’s health, so that’s why it’s so important the information be provided.”
Ministry of the Environment spokesman Lucas Malinowski said the government is looking at a province-wide approach to provide public reporting by all Ontario municipalities of treatment plant bypasses and overflows.
“Having real-time information on sewage bypasses and any associated health risks will better protect the public,” he said.
Kingston has been issuing water quality notices for years because of the many islands in the area that do not have treatment facilities, while Ottawa also voluntarily reports treatment plant bypasses, but not in real time. Other cities such as Niagara Falls and London are considering water quality reports for the public, added Mattson.
“I think you’re going to see pressure from other communities and the public around Ontario asking the Ministry of the Environment to make this a province-wide provision,” he said.
New York state enacted “right to know” legislation this summer so the public must be told within four hours of any raw sewage sent into Lake Ontario or other waterways.
“It’s a growing trend and it’s an important trend,” Mattson said. “It’s certainly helping to inform the public and give them confidence about when the water is clean and when they should stay away from it.”
The province hasn’t decided exactly how Toronto will get the water quality information to the public in real time, but posting it on a website and adding it to social media feeds makes the most sense, said Mattson.
The government said it will consult various city agencies before making a final decision on the method of disclosure.