September 23, 2009

Downtown septic systems have "adverse impact" on Credit River, says MOE

As published in The Erin Advocate

Every community should deal responsibly with its own waste. This principle should be at the core of Erin's upcoming sewage debate. And since we are not dealing responsibly with our septic waste right now, the idea of doing nothing about it is unacceptable.

People may have various ideas and concerns about how to proceed, but the Town must decide on a plan of action. If there is no progress on a sewage solution, the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) promises to make the process mandatory.

Erin Village made a serious attempt at developing a sewage system in 1995, but could not get the necessary funding from senior governments. Only recently has the effort been revived, through the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study.

If the study stays on schedule, there will be a draft final report to Town Council in November next year. The municipal election, however, will be held on November 8. Is council willing to change the timeline so that all the candidates can see the final report and state their positions before the election? Is there any good reason why the final report to council could not be ready next September?

There will be plenty of information coming out in interim reports and public meetings during the next year, but to get some background, I spoke recently with Gary Tomlinson, Acting District Supervisor for the MOE in Guelph. He has worked on Erin's issues for many years. I asked about the severity of impact caused by a large number of septic systems in a small area.

He said that if the soil conditions are good, and the septic systems are spread out, the impact should be minimal. Unfortunately, these advantages do not exist in downtown Erin village or Hillsburgh.

"The soil type is largely unsuitable, the depth of soil overburden to bedrock is inadequate, the groundwater table is high, the various systems are crowded together and, in some cases, there is essentially no separation distance from the various branches of the Credit River," he said.

"As such, there is an observable adverse impact on the river due to nutrient inputs as its tributaries pass through the former Village and Hillsburgh areas."

Back in 1995, the negative effect of septic tanks in the old part of Erin village was well-publicized. Those worries have not gone away. How many older septic tanks and holding tanks would be found acceptable if they were subject to inspection? Why have the Ontario and Town governments allowed the situation to drag on for so long? Yes, we have had the amalgamation of Erin Village with Erin Township, but is that enough of an excuse for waiting 15 years?

Now, we are facing some consequences. Steen's Dairy has been allowed to spread its dairy wash water on farmland, even during the winter (which is not allowed for regular septic waste). The MOE has informed them that this practice will be phased out, not just in winter, but year-round. As part of an expansion plan, the company has decided to relocate their plant to Guelph (though the Dairy Bar will stay in Erin). Lack of sewers was not the only factor, but it was one of them.

"The ministry has informed the Town of Erin on a number of occasions that, based on the observable impacts on the Credit River, a municipal sewage collection and treatment system is required to serve both the urbanized areas and the outlying areas that will continue to generate septage and untreated sewage after the construction of those facilities," said Tomlinson.

"The municipality needs to demonstrate on ongoing commitment and progress towards that goal, or pursuant to its authority under the Ontario Water Resources Act the ministry will make the process mandatory. To date the Town of Erin has shown acceptable progress in meeting this requirement."