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The Ontario government is seeking to punt the question of what to do with millions of litres of Greater Toronto Area sewage to an expert panel.

York Region, located north of Toronto, has sought for years to build a new sewage treatment plant to accommodate an anticipated 153,000 additional people in the suburbs of Aurora, Newmarket and East Gwillimbury. At issue is the question of whether that wastewater should flow into Lake Simcoe or Lake Ontario — or whether there’s an alternative that hasn’t yet been explored.

Facing a slate of unpopular options, Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek introduced legislation last week to allow the province to create an expert panel to look at the issue. Bill 306, the York Region Wastewater Act, also slams the brakes on Ontario’s review of the project’s environmental assessment, which was originally submitted to the government in 2014.

“Many years have passed since this environmental assessment began, and this government wants to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information on the environmental, social and financial impacts of alternatives to provide waste water servicing for Upper York,” Yurek told the legislature on June 3.

The group will be convened in the “near future” and will advise the government on next steps, said Andrew Buttigieg, a spokesperson for Yurek, in an email Monday.

Though it’s an unusual step, it’s not completely unheard of in Ontario ⁠— the province also has advisory panels on climate change and drinking water quality.

The government hasn’t yet revealed who would be on the panel and what its timeline would be. But it would include land use and wastewater experts alongside representatives from Indigenous communities and other stakeholders, Yurek said.

York Region is “extremely disappointed” in the proposed bill, said Mike Rabeau, its director of capital planning and delivery for environmental services, in a statement Monday. The municipality has already spent $100 million on the project, and the province’s failure to make a decision is “disrupting planned employment and residential growth,” he said.

Others said the panel could be a positive step, depending on how the government goes about it.

Margaret Prophet, the executive director of the non-profit Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, said she’s watching to see who its members might be. Her group has raised concerns about how another sewage treatment plant could affect the Lake Simcoe watershed.

“We always hope for the best,” she said.

“Who you put on the panel and what their biases are and what their objective is really affects what you come up with.”

The Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, located on an island in Lake Simcoe, wants more details before agreeing to participate in the panel, said the nation’s environmental department manager, Brandon Stiles. The community is currently working to remedy a boil-water advisory and has long opposed the project.

“We're shrouded in mystery, basically, on what the next steps look like,” Stiles said in a phone interview Monday, adding that the nation was told about the legislation shortly before Yurek announced it.

“We do want our voice on such panels. But we also want to make sure that there are terms and references in place to make sure that our participation is effective.”

Bill 306 also contains a clause that would block the Ontario government from being sued over the legislation. Buttigieg didn’t answer when asked whether the province was aware of any potential lawsuits. York Region declined to comment when asked whether it had planned to pursue the matter in court.

A sunset over Lake Simcoe in spring 2021. Photo by metrix_feet on Flickr

‘It doesn't matter which one they pick, it's not going to work out well’

The plan to deal with York Region’s expanding sewage ⁠needs — called Upper York Sewage Solutions ⁠— date back to at least 2009, when the region started working on its environmental assessment.

York Region’s preference is to build a sewage treatment plant in Queensville, Ont., just south of Lake Simcoe. The effluent, which would undergo more rigorous treatment than most wastewater in Ontario, would flow into the East Holland River, draining into Lake Simcoe. Officials at the region and the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority have said they believe the treated effluent would be clean enough to improve water quality on the river.

Last year, the Ford government sent the project in another direction, telling York Region it would rather see the sewage flow south to Lake Ontario. Under that plan, the effluent would be sent to the Duffin Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Durham Region.

Neither path is particularly popular.

Lake Ontario is a bigger body of water and could be better suited to handle the impact of more sewage. But the treatment plant there isn’t as rigorous as what York Region is proposing, and Durham residents have long blamed wastewater from it for pungent algae blooms. That path could also require digging into the Oak Ridges Moraine, a portion of the protected Greenbelt.

Lake Simcoe is facing its own set of pressures: 15 sewage plants already dump effluent into it. York Region says it can’t clean up a series of lagoons filled with raw sewage until the question of how to expand its wastewater system is resolved.

Both regions lie in the vote-rich 905, a region where the Progressive Conservatives must maintain strong support if they want to win the next election, scheduled for June 2022.

“It doesn't matter which one they pick, it's not going to work out well,” Prophet said.

Environmentalists have questioned why York Region is seeking to build communities it doesn’t have the capacity to handle. They say the sewage skirmish is emblematic of a larger problem: provincial growth targets that experts have criticized for being too aggressive. The same population targets are being used as a rationale for other contentious projects like the Bradford Bypass.

“There's all this pressure to approve, approve, approve,” Prophet said. “Nobody's thinking about what that actually does to the ecology.”

The Chippewas of Georgina Island note that Lake Ontario is also a part of their traditional territory ⁠— though they’re open to exploring the option, they say it would also require consultation and review.

“There are other First Nations that are closer who may take the lead in the consultation efforts,” Stiles said. “But certainly we would still be a First Nation that is consulted on a Lake Ontario option.”

Municipalities in Durham, meanwhile, have said they’re unwilling to bear the dirty fallout of development happening somewhere else.

It’s not clear when the Ontario government might pass Bill 306, which it has posted for public comment until July 4. The legislature started its summer break last week and is scheduled to return in September.

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Sometimes I am a bit envious of those who have children; but as an environmentalist, I am also rather proud that I have none.. and a bit relieved, considering the limited progress humanity is making with regards to climate change.

We need new ways of treating our waste -- ways that do not pollute our precious and limited water resources.
This debate has been going on for more than a decade. Why isn't there a new answer, a new choice besides A or B?

Both previous comments are spot on. Humanity is a plague on the earth and we can no longer "solve" our human excrement problem by diverting it; as the Victorian sewage system did by dumping it into the Thames. Have we not managed to advance beyond that out of sight/smell, out of mindset? Of course we can afford to do the necessary research and support the innovations turning wastewater into potable water as other jurisdictions have.

California with its semi perpetual state of drought has been forced to recycle its wastewater. It is only exploitative capitalism that prevents us from pursuing the "common good". Developers want to wreak their profit making on the cheap. Make them pay for their destructive process; make them meet conditions for building permits that solve this crisis of human waste and human greed.

Modern tertiary sewage treatment must be the standard. The city of Victoria, BC, just completed their plant and it's made a world of difference. From raw to tertiary is a huge leap. So is the very effective odour control through a closed loop. I would go one step further and have the clear, pathogen-free effluent drain into a series of artificial wetlands instead of directly into the ocean or a lake.

The plant removes and treats the biosolids which are stored at a solid waste facility. Sadly, the nutrient-rich material is trucked and barged off Vancouver Island and then burned at the LaFarge cement plant in Metro Vancouver, therein releasing GHGs directly into the airshed. It would be far better to mix the biosolids with sawdust and finely ground wood waste then add cornstarch as a "glue" for hydro-mulching forest clear cuts and large road, transmission corridor and park landscape projects. The material can also be pelletized, sold and transported in bulk dry form.

Where there's a will, there's a way.

Absolutely. Those are nutrients going to waste.

The bit about the vote-rich 905 area is exactly what it's all about. Most municipal and provincial politicians (red or blue, doesn't matter) in that area receive substantial campaign contributions from donors linked to sprawl friendly house builders and road construction companies.