The beaches of Halifax Harbour opened last summer for the first time in years—a fleeting environmental victory unlikely to soon be repeated. Halifax is again dumping human waste into the harbour after the failure of a key part of its $333-million sewage treatment system. It may take a year to repair the plant after a power outage caused a valve to fail in January, flooding the building with seven million litres of sewage. City officials will open an electronic black box this week that may reveal who is responsible for repairing the facility, which opened in late 2007.
The plant failure is seen as a setback by Ecojustice Canada (formerly Sierra Legal), an advocacy group that ranks the generally dismal waste water treatment record of Canadian municipalities. “Plants deal with power outages all the time so Halifax should have been prepared,” says Elaine MacDonald, a senior scientist with Ecojustice. Halifax, Montreal, Victoria and St. John’s, Nfld., were all assessed failing grades in the group’s 2004 National Sewage Report Card. It estimated 200 billion litres of raw sewage is dumped annually. “Municipal sewage is the single largest source of pollution into water in Canada and it gets very little attention,” she says.
Elsewhere, progress is slow, but steady. In February, federal and provincial environment ministers signed an accord requiring all 3,500 Canadian treatment plants to upgrade to remove solid waste and most toxins. The cost is estimated at $10 billion to $13 billion over 30 years. A plant in St. John’s will open this summer, and construction is set to start soon on a $52-million plant in Saint John, N.B.
Meanwhile, the B.C. government has ordered Victoria, which flushes its untreated waste into the ocean, to choose the location of its treatment facilities by year’s end. That project is estimated to cost up to $2 billion, and should be operational by 2016.