September 16, 2009

Septage treatment could be a business opportunity for Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) is committed to ending the application of septage and untreated sewage on farm fields, but it has been saying that for a long time, and still no deadline has been set. It has, however, prohibited application during the winter months.

"It is quite likely that land disposal of septage and untreated sewage will be discontinued prior to the construction of a collection system and municipal sewage treatment facilities in the Town of Erin," said Gary Tomlinson, Acting District Supervisor for the MOE in Guelph.

Since Erin's septage (sludge and liquid from septic tanks) and sewage pumped from downtown holding tanks cannot be spread when the ground is frozen, it will likely be trucked to a sewage treatment plant in Collingwood. Plants that are closer do not have the capacity to handle outside waste, or refuse to accept it. As Collingwood grows, it too could decide to reject outside waste. Erin is studying its sewage options, but a plant of its own is many years away.

Since the Town has no current responsibility to provide a destination for hauled septic waste, haulers must try to find a place to take it. If it must go even farther away than Collingwood, or to a plant that charges more, costs will continue to rise for consumers and businesses.

Homeowners now pay about $250 every three or four years for septic tank pumping. Most downtown businesses, however, cannot have septic systems since they are so close to the river. Having their holding tanks pumped out regularly can cost many hundreds of dollars per month.

Spreading human waste on farm fields could have less impact than the waste from farm animals, but the idea still offends many people. Over the years, there have been complaints to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), saying the rules are not strict enough, that MOE enforcement is weak or inconsistent and that land spreading should be banned.

Tomlinson said a total ban could be enacted if "adequate alternative facilities for disposal are deemed to exist, and/or the overall impacts on the environment due to land disposal are deemed unacceptable." He said the ministry has the legal authority to force a treatment plant outside Erin to accept Erin's sewage or septage.

Of course, sewage plants generate their own sludge, and huge volumes from city plants go onto farm fields. Debate rages about pathogens, heavy metals, industrial organic chemicals and antibiotics in treated sludge, but at least it has been treated.

In May, Environment Minister John Gerretsen was under attack in the legislature for a plan to shift sludge regulation to the Ministry of Agriculture, removing the need for Certificate of Approval permits.

The NDP's Howard Hampton accused him of ignoring the "human health impacts" of sludge, but Gerretsen insisted the government is relying on "the best science" and that public health would be protected.

Land application of untreated waste is inexpensive, and while it provides some fertilizing benefits, there are risks. The MOE tries to mitigate them, but is willing to tolerate them for now.

"The ministry is concerned about practices that could cause a significant risk to human health and the environment," said Tomlinson. "Run off from lands where untreated sewage and septage has been applied could potentially get into drinking water sources, such as rural wells, and expose people to serious health risks. The run off can also flow to water courses such as creeks and rivers and cause conditions resulting in fish kills."

Many sewage plants in Ontario are aging, and as the population grows, they are reaching full capacity. When land application of untreated waste ends, there will be a huge demand for treatment. So when Erin builds its new plant, perhaps we should see it as a business opportunity.

Build the plant with greater capacity than the town needs, and charge haulers from other areas who are willing to bring their waste here. I ran the idea past Mayor Rod Finnie, and he said it is a possibility, if council decides to adopt such a mandate.

A facility that serves a regional need might even qualify for higher infrastructure funding.