Looking Back in Despair: Water pollution in Ontario in the last 10 years

by Theresa Peluso

Continuing my review of environmental destruction in Ontario, here is my investigation into our Province’s track record in tackling water pollution. Air and soil pollution will be addressed in a later article, as well as the problem of plastic waste.

We tend to dismiss many ecological disasters, such as untreated sewage in the Ganges river, as happening to “other people”.  But surely not in Ontario?  Our province is rich in water resources. Ontario borders four of the five Great Lakes, and we have more than a quarter of a million lakes and 100,000 kilometres of rivers and streams.  But really, how clean is all this water?

Who do we believe?

In November 2018, Ontario’s Acting Chief Drinking Water Inspector, Mili New, released Ontario’s Annual Report on Drinking Water Quality for 2017 and 2018.7(See https://www.ontario.ca/page/ministers-annual-report-drinking-water-2018#section-0 for details.)

According to this report on municipal residential drinking water systems, 99.8 per cent of test results met Ontario’s drinking water quality standards.  More than 95 percent of the test results met Ontario’s standard for lead in drinking water at schools and child care centres.  And enforcement activities imposed fines amounting to a total of $314,500 on eight drinking water systems and two drinking-water testing laboratories. The report maintains that our Province is working hard to ensure the cleanliness of our lakes and rivers, streams and wetlands.

“In Ontario, our water is protected by strict health-based drinking water standards, comprehensive legislation and strong monitoring, reporting and enforcement that ensure the quantity and quality of our drinking water,” said Rod Phillips, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks at that time.

Really?  Let’s investigate.

Lead in our drinking water

First, there is the question of exactly how much lead is in our drinking water. Note that this problem seems to be mainly caused by old lead fixtures, historically used in plumbing and still in place today, and does not affect our lakes and rivers.

The above-mentioned Annual Report on Drinking Water Quality for 2017 and 2018 states that:

The test results from drinking water samples show that the vast majority of schools and child care centres do not have issues with lead in their drinking water. Nearly 96 per cent of more than 87,000 test results in 2017-18 met Ontario’s standard for lead in drinking water at schools and child care centres. (end of quote)

Yet this statement doesn’t quite square with an investigative report published jointly last November by Global News, The Toronto Star, the Ryerson School of Journalism and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism (https://globalnews.ca/news/6107982/ontario-schools-daycares-lead-levels/).  The investigation found that more than 2,400 Ontario schools and daycares (about one-quarter of all schools and daycares in Ontario) exceeded the current federal guideline for lead in drinking water in the past two years.  At least 24 schools in the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) in the Leeds and Grenville area had drinking water with lead levels exceeding acceptable limits.

When informed of this problem, the Province would not indicate whether more infrastructure funding would be provided to school boards to actually remove the lead.

So who do we believe?

Abdicating responsibility for contaminated water for First Nations in Ontario

Then there is the question of whether it’s right for this report to extol the safety of our Province’s drinking water when water for many First Nations communities is contaminated.  The 2017/18 Annual Report on Drinking Water Quality touches ever so lightly on this fact by stating that the Province makes water testing available for First Nations, but little else.

The Walkerton E. coli outbreak in 2000 that resulted from the contamination of the town’s drinking water supply with bacteria from cattle manure ended up causing 6 deaths and sickening more than 2,000 people. This tragedy forced our Province to redouble its attention to the drinking water of Ontarians not on reserves.  Since the year 2000, how many First Nations people have died or developed life-shortening diseases as a result of contaminated water?  Is anyone keeping track?

Since the Federal Government has control over First Nations (through the Indian Act), it has been easy to simply relocate these people away from their traditional lands (for development and exploitation by non-Indigenous people) to more remote, unfamiliar areas, then provide grossly inadequate funding for essential infrastructure and services. For decades, the Federal Government did not take appropriate action to ensure residents on First Nations reserves benefited from equal protection before the law.  One of the outcomes is that to this day there are no drinking water regulations on reserve.

Provincial and territorial regulations governing safe drinking water and sanitation do not extend to First Nations reserves. As a result, because there is no legal obligation to ensure that their drinking water is safe, in all of Canada, 73 percent of First Nations water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination. (See https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/february-2019/first-nations-water-problems-crisis-canadas-making/ for more information.)

Ontario issues drinking water advisories – in 2016 it issued 90 of them – and these advisories were highly concentrated in many of the Province’s 205 First Nations communities and 9 settlements.  Many of these drinking water advisories for reserves have persisted for years, and even decades.

The Neskantaga First Nation (population about 240) in northwestern Ontario haven’t had access to safe tap water since 1995. Neskantaga families have even found fecal matter in their water, and sewers backing up into their bathtubs.

The river providing water to Grassy Narrows, a First Nation of about 650 people near Ontario’s border with Manitoba, was contaminated by tonnes of mercury dumped into its water system by an upstream paper mill between 1962 and 1970. One study estimated that 90 per cent of the population suffers from some degree of mercury poisoning.

A drinking water advisory in Chippewas of Nawash First Nation (population on reserve about 700), who live on the Bruce Peninsula, has been in place for more than 12 months because of inadequate treatment and disinfection systems.

As for the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, Ontario’s third-largest First Nations reserve, their water contamination, which has resulted in skin rashes and gastrointestinal illnesses, is one of many examples in an excerpt from a 2018 Washington Post article:

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/third-world-conditions-many-of-canadas-indigenous-people-cant-drink-the-water-at-home/2018/10/14/c4f429b4-bc53-11e8-8243-f3ae9c99658a_story.html)

To avoid drinking water contaminated with blue algae or bacteria such as E. coli, residents of Ontario’s third-largest First Nations reserve boil water, pay for it to be delivered to them by truck, or haul jugs to and from the reserve’s two fill-up stations.

(end of quote)

Then there’s the Aamjiwnaang First Nation (formerly Chippewas of Sarnia), located on the St. Clair River, five kilometres south of Sarnia.  The Chippewas have lived in this area from time immemorial. Many treaties and many decades later, Sarnia not only expropriated most of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s land, but also became a major centre for the petrochemical industry, acquiring the nickname Chemical Valley.  Here you will find our Province’s largest concentration of facilities that refine oil and make products such as synthetic rubber, fertilizer, jet fuel, and ingredients for plastics.  Not infrequently, there are chemical spills, about which more later.

Last year Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, spent two weeks touring Canada and visiting First Nations living close to industrial developments or dealing with the repercussions of toxic waste. He had this to say: “It was my observation that Indigenous peoples are disproportionately impacted by the toxic by-products, the hazardous substances and wastes that are used, produced and released by economic actors.”

A report on his findings will be presented this coming September to the Human Rights Council.

Is our water security secure?

For the answer to this question, let’s look at the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s 2018 report (docs.assets.eco.on.ca › reports › 2018 › Back-to-Basics).   

In the report, Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe pointed out that “the government still allows an astonishing amount of pollution to flow into our lakes and rivers.”  She identified raw municipal sewage, agricultural run-off, toxic industrial waste and road salt as the four biggest sources of water contamination in the province – all of which were known to the Ontario government for decades, but deliberately mishandled.   According to this report, one in five Ontarians do not consume water that is protected by the 2006 Clean Water Act (which is supposed to protect our watersheds).  For the 82 percent of Ontarians whose water is protected by this Clean Water Act, the Act expired on March 31 last year, and does not appear to have been renewed. So it’s questionable whether municipalities will still be able to provide safe drinking water.

In the words of Environmental Commissioner Saxe: “We have to get water from somewhere…. The more we pollute the water, not only do we lose biodiversity, but it becomes harder and harder to find water we can drink.”  Keep in mind that once pollutants enter the water supply, they are incredibly hard to remove.

Rather than quote extensively from the Environmental Commissioner’s report, let’s check some other sources for corroboration.

Toxic industrial waste

A report in the November 30, 2017 issue of the Toronto Star

(https://projects.thestar.com/dirty-dollars-pollution/) provides a shocking exposé of our Province’s lax enforcement of environmental standards.  Starting in 2010, Toronto Star reporters conducted extensive research into pollution violations by major Canadian industries, the application of environmental regulations, and the amount of government subsidies they receive.  This included pollution violation data from our Province, as well as penalty and prosecution records.

Here are some of the facts they uncovered.

From 2011 to 2014, 20 companies repeatedly breached environmental laws, and their factories violated pollution limits more than 50 times. 

One plant released a contaminant nearly 237 times the acceptable limit.  This company was left to resolve the problem on its own instead of having the incident investigated. 

Another company, a pulp mill in the Thunder Bay District, violated environmental standards 2,457 times over four years, and was only penalized a few token times, for a total of $324,000 in fines.  During those same four years, this company received more than $113 million in subsidies and rebates from the Ontario and Canadian governments.

Yet another pulp and paper company with mills in Dryden and Espanola, which violated pollution regulations 1,800 times between 2011 and 2014, squeezed these two towns for tax concessions of more than $7 million.

A food-ingredient manufacturer in Port Colborne, with hundreds of industrial wastewater pollution violations, ended up receiving $1 million in public provincial funds, for undisclosed reasons.

A massive spill in February of 2004 by Imperial Oil in Sarnia that leaked 250,000 litres of volatile chemicals into the St. Clair River, resulted in drinking water intake systems being shut down in nearby neighbourhoods.  Imperial Oil was fined a paltry $300,000 for causing this massive spill.

These companies are expected to self-report when they violate pollution standards, and the Province leaves it up to them to resolve the problem voluntarily. Environmental advocacy groups say that fines or prosecutions for these violations are rare.  The only recourse for private citizens is to collect evidence and file complaints for there to be any kind of accountability.

Additional pollution sources, particularly for the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, are from chemical, metal, plastic and paint manufacturing, tech companies, and the aerospace and automotive sectors. Pollution in the Great Lakes has been of great concern for decades, and is hugely complicated by the fact that Ontario shares management of these waters (all 259,000 square kilometres) with eight U.S. states, three U.S. intertribal agencies, and several federal agencies.

Tracking and measuring water pollution sources of our Province’s lakes and rivers is an essential prerequisite for any corrective measures to be effective; yet our government, for many years, has persisted in remaining oblivious.  And this already low threshold of pollution-monitoring is set to drop further, if that’s possible.

A November 2019 report by Kelsey Scarfone for Environmental Defence Canada

(https://environmentaldefence.ca/2019/11/07/ontario-making-cheaper-easier-industries-pollute-waters/) explains why the Province’s latest omnibus bill, Bill 132 (issued in November 2019) is of concern.  Although Jeff Yurek (Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks) claimed that this bill would hold big industrial polluters more accountable, the new schedule of penalties is not even remotely a slap on the wrist – instead of facing a maximum of $100,000 for each day that a violation occurs, the new bill imposes a MAXIMUM of $200,000 – insignificant for a company earning revenues of $30 billion per year, as many pulp-and-paper mills, oil refineries and steel plants do.

Raw municipal sewage

According to a February 2020 article by the Canadian Press, Canada has pumped nearly 900 billion litres of raw sewage into waterways since 2013, with 2018’s overflow amounts 44 percent higher than 2013. It’s basically impossible to know for sure, however, because very few, if any, records are kept.  (See https://ottawacitizen.com/pmn/news-pmn/canada-news-pmn/canada-pumps-nearly-900-billion-litres-of-raw-sewage-into-waterways-since-2013/wcm/30c5405a-bcff-450e-8e0b-0c39aab65cc4/.)

Data published this year also show that wastewater-treatment plants across the country – and that includes Ontario – failed water-quality tests thousands of times between 2013 and 2018.  Extreme weather events, including the seasonal combination of snowmelt and heavy rain, can overwhelm our aging stormwater and wastewater systems, resulting in sewage overflows and bypasses from municipal wastewater systems that flow into Ontario’s lakes and rivers. A total of 1,327 such bypasses were reported to the Province of Ontario during the 2017-18 fiscal year.  These are just the reported spills.

Climate projections for the province predict that by 2050, the average annual temperature for Ontario could increase by 4oC, and 7oC in Northern Ontario during winter months. This will make the chance of extreme weather events and flooding more frequent and severe, further challenging our wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

In November 2018 the newly elected Ontario Conservative government proclaimed that its new “Made-In-Ontario Environment Plan would call for increased monitoring and public reporting of sewage overflows, potentially forcing hundreds of municipalities across Ontario to monitor and publicly report sewage overflows.

The key question, though, is whether these rules are clear and enforceable, or whether they are just more hollow promises.

As proof that where there’s a will, there’s a way to fix the sewage overflow problem, the City of Kingston has taken the lead on this issue, ahead of every other jurisdiction in the country.  In 2017 Kingston unveiled a real-time sewage overflow monitoring and notification website to provide detailed information about sewage discharges. Since using the monitors, Kingston staff have found that their earlier calculations significantly underestimated the amount of sewage overflow.

Since 2017, only Toronto seems to be taking any kind of action, although it is expected that 10 years will elapse before the first phase is operational, and as long as 25 years before the entire project is complete.

Road salt

And then we have the problem of many of our freshwater waterways in the southern part of the Province turning salty, as explained by this CTV News article https://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/some-southern-ontario-waterways-now-as-salty-as-the-ocean-wwf-canada-1.4474422 .

According to Elizabeth Hendriks, of World Wildlife Fund Canada, lethal levels of salt are being found in many rural and urban southern Ontario waterways, as a result of the chloride from road salt.  This chloride is toxic to freshwater species and ecosystems.  According to Ms. Hendriks, healthy levels for aquatic life should be less than 120 mg per litre, but some areas in southern Ontario currently have levels greater than 1,000 mg per litre.

Researchers have been compiling data on chloride levels for roughly the last decade.  In 2009, Environment and Climate Change Canada reported that Ontario used around 2 million tonnes of road salt per year, with the biggest single users being the Ministry of Transportation and large municipalities.  In April 2020, the Ottawa Riverkeepers published a report of their data, which showed some local waterways with 800 mg of salt per litre, seven times the environmentally-healthy level of salt. One creek had readings of 3,500 mg/L in mid-February of this year. Again, the Ontario government has listed salt contamination as a major issue in its environmental plan, but it remains to be seen whether this will be followed up.

Agricultural run-off

Yet another source of water pollution is nutrient runoff into Ontario lakes, mostly from cropland, with extreme weather events intensifying the problem. Heavy rains, which are becoming more frequent, can cause large amounts of phosphorus (from fertilizers) to enter waterways and result in algal blooms (some of which can be toxic).  As these algae decompose, they deplete oxygen in the water, threatening human and ecological health.

And yet the 2017 Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) report states that our Provincial government relies almost exclusively on volunteer reporting which, again, shows complete indifference to this problem.

(https://www.watercanada.net/ontario-environmental-commissioner-reports-on-nutrient-pollution/).  Although the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) provides voluntary agricultural programs on best practices, these have had little or no impact on the nutrient loadings in our water bodies.

Likewise with inappropriate pesticide use.  OMAFRA provides lots of information on proper use of these products, but spill reportings are voluntary, and there are no penalties.

Even watersheds further north have deteriorated.  David Miller, former World Wildlife Fund Canada President and CEO is quoted thus in a 2017 CBC News interview: “Like most Canadians, I have an image of our country as a haven of fresh water. When I started canoeing, I could dip my cup in a lake in Algonquin Park and I could drink it without treating it and that’s not true anymore.”  Mr. Miller, in this same interview, emphasized that the lack of available and accessible data on the health of our watersheds – which underpin our well-being and our economies – keeps our governments from formulating effective regulation.

The evisceration of the ECO in 2019 by Premier Ford’s Cabinet following the 2018 provincial elections, will further cover the traces and remove accountability for businesses and individuals despoiling our water.

According to the 2015 Watershed Report by the World Wildlife Fund

(http://watershedreports.wwf.ca/#ws-20/by/threat-pollution/threat ), in the Ottawa River watershed (which encompasses the Mississippi River watershed), the pollution levels are “very high” throughout.  In the Upper Ottawa sub-watershed, transportation leaks are “very high”.  In the Central Ottawa sub-watershed, agricultural contamination is “very high”.  In the Lower Ottawa sub-watershed, the levels of pollution from municipal and industrial sites are “very high”.

Climate change

The 2014 Water Quality in Ontario Report provides findings from some of the ministry’s water monitoring programs, and includes key findings for the Great Lakesinland lakes, and streams and groundwater:

The report found, as a result of monitoring Ontario’s fisheries resources in over 800 inland lakes over a period of five years several trends of concern.  Specifically with reference to climate change, the report found that warming lake water temperatures and changes in lake mixing have increased the growing season for algae.  Climate change also seems to be contributing to the decrease in calcium-rich zooplankton populations in inland lake that provide an important food source for other aquatic life such fish.

What next?

With our current Provincial government’s dismantling of the Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and it’s cozying up to Big Business, the purity and security of our water is at even greater risk than before.  If it weren’t for the environmental organizations, journalists and private citizens measuring, documenting and reporting on contaminants, there would be even less awareness of the damage being done.

Unlike many other countries, Ontario was once blessed with a myriad of pristine lakes and rivers that were treasured by the people who first lived here, people who revered water as the blood of Mother Earth, as a gift that sustains and replenishes life.

Now these First Nations people are being sickened by the very water they revered because later inhabitants of Ontario have poured their sewage, toxic industrial waste, agricultural run-off and road salt into these many lakes and rivers. The trees, the flowers and all the creatures who also depend on this blood of Mother Earth are suffering too.

So before we criticize other countries for neglecting their resources, let’s reflect on our own wanton disregard for our lakes and rivers, and then act now to change how we, our communities and our industries treat this indispensable resource that is water.  Time is fast running out.