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Something Stinks in Metro Vancouver

May 4, 2010 | by  |  Features

Tuesday May 4, 2010 – Fraser Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to the protection of our local waterways, filed an international complaint today alleging that Canada is not abiding by its own environmental laws. The North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, a side-agreement to NAFTA, includes provisions for regular citizens to file complaints if they believe their country is not following its own environmental regulations.

Centered in the Riverkeeper’s complaint is the Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. The largest in Metro Vancouver, Iona pumps 500 million litres of primary sewage into the Strait of Georgia every day. An upgrade of the aging facility has long been on the radar of environmentalists and politicians but the billion dollar price tag has senior government doing all it can to push back the timeline.

To better understand the issue, The Dependent scheduled a walking tour of Metro Vancouver’s “poster-child” for wastewater treatment: Annacis Island.

Frank Dolemeyer, Operations Supervisor at Annacis, served as tour guide. He explained that incoming wastewater, known as “influent”, is first put through a mechanical process known as primary treatment. It’s screened for large debris and then pumped into holding tanks where the heavier particles sink as “sludge”, and the fats, oil and grease rise to the top as “scum”. Both are removed by metal arms slowly raking the tanks.

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

With the removal of sludge and scum, primary treatment ends. The effluent is an odoriferous, sickly brownish-grey, with about half of its solids removed.

As organic matter in wastewater decomposes it consumes oxygen. Effluent too high in organic material creates oxygen-starved areas devoid of life. A standard Canadian wastewater test places ten rainbow trout into a tank of undiluted effluent; if less than half of the fish survive, the plant is said to have failed the test. Primary treatment facilities reduce the oxygen requirements of effluent by approximately 30% – just enough for half of the fish to survive. This is the treatment employed at the Iona facility.

Annacis takes it a few steps further: those large geodesic domes visible from the Alex Fraser Bridge are called trickling filters. They mark the start of a biological and chemical process known as secondary treatment. Inside the domes are enormous honeycomb structures through which effluent slowly filters. As the water descends, the tiny organisms inside it attach themselves to the honeycomb material. Oxygen and temperature levels inside the domes are closely regulated, and a thriving colony of microorganisms is grown large enough to eat great quantities of the waste in the water. It is an ingenious and effective process, where in essence, the wastewater is used to clean itself. The effluent leaving Annacis is clear and smells faintly of chlorine.

According to Dolemeyer, the secondary treatment employed at Annacis reduces the oxygen demands of the effluent by approximately 90%. Being something of a layman, I wanted him to put it into terms that I could understand, so I asked him if he would drink it.

“Absolutely not,” was his utterly humourless reply.

While you may not make ice cubes with it, tests show that the effluent coming from secondary treatment plants like Annacis Island, Lulu Island and Northwest Langley is not acutely toxic to fish, and once it’s diluted by the Fraser River, Metro Vancouver asserts that it poses marginal environmental concern. For those of us living in Richmond, Delta or anywhere east of Burnaby, you may therefore flush with a clear conscience, whereas those of us flushing in Vancouver proper should be very ashamed indeed. Our wastewater flows through combined storm and sanitary sewers to the Iona Island or Lions Gate facilities, both of which offer primary treatment only.

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

“They [Iona] operate on a permit from the Provincial Government,” explained Douglas Chapman of Fraser Riverkeeper,  “and as part of their procedures they have to sample their effluent every month and do a toxicity test on it. They usually fail about four tests in a twelve month period. It seems that in the summer they have problems when there’s not as much rain and the wastewater isn’t as diluted.”

Chapman is one of the main drivers of the citizen submission and is no stranger to environmental law. Working as a crown prosecutor in Ontario, he was responsible for Canada’s first environmental conviction that resulted in jail time. He was also involved in a private prosecution of the Annacis Plant before its upgrade to secondary treatment. In 2007, Chapman was the informant in another private prosecution against the Provincial Government and what is now Metro Vancouver, charging that the Iona and Lions Gate facilities are operated in contravention of the Federal Fisheries Act.

The act, which prohibits releasing a substance known to be “deleterious” to fish into fish-bearing waters, has been used to successfully convict Dawson City, Yukon and Iqaluit, Nunavut, confirming that untreated effluent is known to be “deleterious” to fish.

Still, Chapman’s 2007 case was never likely to succeed. “The [Federal] Attorney General has a policy of staying private prosecutions against the B.C. Government,” explained Devon Page, Executive Director of Ecojustice. Ecojustice represented Chapman in the case. “It’s something we’ve been fighting for as long as we’ve been around. From my perspective, it’s based upon the presumption that only the government is entitled to act as a watchdog on environmental issues. We take the position that they aren’t doing a very good job.”

In November 2008, the Federal Attorney General stayed the charges as expected, declaring the case not in the public interest and furthermore, unlikely to result in a conviction. How the A.G. came to those conclusions, in spite of a Provincial Judge approving them has never been revealed. To find out, Ecojustice filed a Freedom of Information request. The Attorney General disputed the request, claiming the information was privileged. The FOI Commissioner overruled, declaring that documents pertaining to the decision had to be disclosed. The A.G. turned them over, almost fully blacked out. Ecojustice continues to pursue the matter on behalf of Mr. Chapman.

In the meantime, the T. Buck Suzuki foundation may explain why the prosecution was stayed: In their 2004 Sewage Report Card, Vancouver receives a “C-”, and in the executive summary they note that “as Provinces are often compelled by law to share the cost of infrastructure upgrades such as new sewage treatment plants with local governments, they are often loath to prosecute these same entities as the only logical outcome of such prosecution would be a demand for system upgrades.”

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

By the end of 2008 the global economy had all but finished its free-fall. The beginning of 2009 saw the B.C. Liberals announce the first provincial budget deficit in five years. The appetite for cost-sharing on a $1.4 billion project was unlikely. In fact, it still is. Metro Vancouver is currently in the process of drafting a new Liquid Waste Management Plan. The document, which must be approved by the B.C. Minister of the Environment, will formalize the timeline for upgrading the Iona and Lions Gate facilities. Metro Vancouver is pushing to complete both by 2020, but the Provincial Environment Minister has rejected any cost-sharing language in the plan.

“It’s imperative that we replace both of them [Iona and Lions Gate],” said Malcolm Brodie, Chair of the Metro Vancouver Finance Committee, “and the only thing that’s holding the replacement of both of them back is the senior-level government financial contribution. If we knew it was one-third, one-third, one-third on each, we could confidently put it into the plan for 2020.” Without Provincial and Federal assistance, Metro Vancouver is faced with the unpopular necessity of raising their sewerage fees astronomically. In a report to Metro Vancouver Board of Directors, Brodie’s Finance Committee predicted Vancouver’s annual household sewerage levy to rise from $160 in 2010 to $1171 by 2030.

Further complicating the development of the new Plan is the unveiling of the Canada-wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent. The new Strategy sets modern standards for wastewater treatment across Canada and provides a framework for assessing plant upgrade priorities based on factors including volume and discharge environment. A new definition in the Strategy may see the Georgia Strait defined as “open marine environment” and  the Iona timeline extended from the current Provincial mandate of 2020 to 2030.

Christianne Wilhelmson is the Executive Director of the Georgia Strait Alliance. She was involved in the 2007 Ecojustice private prosecution and has played a heavy part in the development of the new Canada-wide Strategy. She says she was surprised by the new definition and stops just short of suggesting that it was crafted specifically by senior government to extend the Iona time frame: “My cynical mind says that they created that just so that Iona – well, I don’t get where those numbers come from. I’ve seen no rationale. I’d like to.”

Indeed, the new definition fits the Iona discharge profile rather snugly:

With no apparent support for near-term plant upgrades by senior levels of government, all signs point to the continuation of primary treatment at Iona for the next twenty years. For Douglas Chapman, the international filing, which has no enforcement component, is an attempt to raise the profile of these issues and get some answers: “I want to know why the Government of Canada isn’t following their own environmental laws.”

Something to think about the next time you flush in Vancouver…

Pondering life, love and the treatment of residential wastewater at the Annacis Island WWTP

Matt Chambers is the editor and publisher of The Dependent Magazine. He's in way over his head.



  1. Chambers’ article doesn’t address the likelihood that paying a billion dollars for additional sewage treatment at Iona will probably not have any significant positive impact on the actual marine environment, because killing a few fish in a cage right at the effluent outfall mouth is not necessarily an accurate test for a large-volume marine environment.

    That was the kind of unsuitable test used by eco-lawyers to try to persuade the gullible in Victoria that our two long screened marine outfalls were not suitable. Wrong of course – Victoria’s natural marine-based sewage treatment system is quite adequate for our marine environment and our type of sewage that is low in industrial effluent.

    However, politicians and activists have fallen into a false paradigm that huge cement and steel sewage plants are always an improvement over simpler systems, such as long marine outfalls.

    Not mentioned in the Chambers story is the negative impacts of advanced sewage treatment at Iona – the relative production increases of greenhouse gases and of energy consumption. Also, what Fraser Valley food crops will be the beneficiary of more sewage sludge “fertilizers”?

    For more information on our concern about the environmental and economic impacts of additional sewage treatment in Victoria:

  2. Very nice article, Matt. This is yet another great example of our federal/provincial governments passing meaningless laws and regulations and standards that they could never possibly afford to enforce. It makes them look good at press conferences for saying and doing all the right things at all the right times and it makes all the hippies that scream about this stuff feel good so they can forget about the earth’s troubles long enough to flush away their morning crap.

    On the 6:00 news all you ever get to hear about is the enacting of these useless laws. For some reason, hardly anyone cares enough to ever pay any serious attention to the inevitably messy implementation (or, in this case, a lack thereof). Nice follow-though, Matt.

  3. I wish the City of Vancouver and other polluters would be forced to follow our environmental laws and not get away with these arguments about cost. When Canada wrote the laws we knew it would mean sacrifices but we believed in our environmental rights and the value of clean water.

    Those who break the laws will always come up with the old deny, defer, diminish and deflect arguments but that is why we have courts.

  4. Crap is a volumetric conundrum. In small portions (one dump at a time) it is an environmental triviality. Problems surface (so to speak) when the volume outgrows the environment’s ability to assimilate it. Sticking a long tube into the ocean does not diminish the crap volume, it just moves it out of smell and out of mind. Recall that Kits beach was even more polluted than it is today before the Iona outfall was moved further out into the straight. I challenge any green diver to hang out at the end of Victoria’s outfall and let some aristocratic juices seep into their pores!

    Two solutions spring to mind: eat less – poo less; recycle every log in your own backyard. We can fix this, one crap at a time.

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