Remember the headlines last summer announcing that Lake Erie’s algal bloom crisis had rendered Toledo’s water supply unfit to drink? Now there is evidence that algae is an increasing problem in Lake Ontario, with the shoreline stretching from St. Catharines to Oshawa being identified as an area of growing concern. A significant source of this problem is the phosphorus discharge of sewage treatment plants lining the GTHA shoreline.
Ground Zero for this potential Lake Ontario crisis are the beaches in the Town of Ajax. Positioned just to the east of the Duffin Creek Sewage Treatment Plant, the Ajax shoreline is the first recipient of the outflow of the Duffin Creek Plant, which, fed by the “big pipe,” processes waste from more than 900,000 York Region residents and another 200,000 in Durham Region.
This phosphorus-laden discharge regularly renders the Ajax shoreline unusable to walk along and unthinkable to swim in.
Right now, the Ontario environment ministry is considering the region’s proposal to triple the outflow from the Duffin Creek plant with no treatment upgrade.
This blatant disregard of the environmental and public health cost of adding to the already alarming level of nutrient loading flushed into Lake Ontario would seem to be a “no-brainer.” In itself, this should have been ringing the alarm bells at Queen’s Park. Even before regional media declared the Ajax algae the newsmaker of the year in 2014
In point of fact, the proposal to triple the phosphorus output flies in the face of a Canada-U.S. commitment to reduce the input of phosphorus generated by sewage treatment plants into the Great Lakes. An agreement supported by the Ontario government.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) Nutrient Annex initially targets sewage plants emptying in to Lake Erie for mandated controls and reductions, with a plan to be in place by February 2018. Action to address the Lake Ontario algae problem is to follow on an as yet undetermined date.
So yes, Queen’s Park’s legion of lawyers can say that tripling the phosphorus flow does not violate the Nutrient Annex commitment “at this time.” Nonetheless, it is obvious in the extreme that a decision to allow three times the current output of phosphorus to damage the ecosystem and public health of Ajax and Lake Ontario is without logical justification, especially in the face of a signed bi-national agreement to reduce the nutrient output and the algal blooms it generates.
Early in 2015, the Wynne government will introduce its long-awaited Great Lakes Protection Act (GLPA). First promised by Premier Dalton McGuinty in the 2011 election campaign, the GLPA has been much discussed and generally encouraged by Ontario’s environmental organizations. Proactive measures to advance the goals of the GLWQA Nutrient Annex would seem to be an obvious component of any Ontario commitment to protect the Great Lakes in 2015 and beyond.
Polling shows that Ajax residents are not happy about their despoiled waterfront and it was the highest profile local issue in the recent provincial election. The Town of Ajax has not been sitting on its hands in the face of proposals for elevated pollution levels from the Duffin Creek Plant.
Ajax has immeasurably enhanced its call for action by commissioning a research team headed by Dr. Martin Auer of Michigan Technological University. Auer’s recently released research findings confirm the Duffin-Ajax pollution and algae link. Armed with Auer’s research, Ajax is petitioning the environment ministry to order a Class Environmental Assessment of the plant’s operation and its phosphorus discharge.
Ontario and Canada’s commitment to achieve the objectives of the GLWQA Nutrient Annex require nothing less than to reduce the phosphorus flow at source. Tertiary treatment of sewage should be required before it is discharged into the gift of nature that is the Great Lakes. At present, no municipal sewage treatment plant on the Lakes achieves this standard.
The Duffin Creek plant phosphorous outflow issue and the algae covered beaches of Ajax are an important and very real indicator of the Ontario government’s commitment to clean water in the Great Lakes.
- Dan McDermott is director of Sierra Club Eastern Canada Chapter