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Canada - a dumping ground for sewage?

Jill Colton, staff writer

June 14, 2010 — An analysis by the Canadian Press has discovered that millions of litres of raw sewage and harmful contaminants have been dumped across major Canadian cities over the past six years.

What if you found out that millions of litres of waste was being dumped in your backyard on a yearly basis? Well, based on an analysis by the Canadian Press, this is exacty what's happened.

The information was previously kept in a classified government document known as NEMISIS -- which stands for National Enforcement Management Information System and Intelligence System. The information is used by officers to catch polluters.

The analysis looked at 18 cities across 10 provinces including, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Ottawa, Quebec City, Fredericton, Saint John, N.B., Charlottetown, Halifax and St. John's N.L.

The Canadian Press then used the government document to create their own database. The results were frightening. Some 6,555 spills have taken place in those parts of the country since 2004. They range in severity, but the most frequent contaminant found in the spills were petroleum products -- about 55 percent of all entries included this material.

Calgary's Bonnybrook wastewater treatment plant contained the largest spill. The database confirmed that a storm and flood helped cause a 300 million-litre sewage spill on June 17, 2005.

Edith Phillips of Calgary's regulatory affairs branch said, “The floodwater overwhelmed the city's sewers and treatment plants. The flooding damaged ultra-violet lights used to kill bacteria, so treated wastewater flowed into the Bow River.” The waste had gone through two stages of treatment prior to being spilled in the river, she notes, “It wasn't raw sewage.”

Meanwhile, the government database also found that a sewer leak in Ottawa lead to 190 million litres of sewage seeping out. It began January 1, 1998 and wasn't reported until September 10, 2008. Ottawa's manager of wastewater, Michel Chevalier was shocked by the entries, “The data is not necessarily reality, or it leads to conclusions that are false.”

There are some spills that aren't even listed in the database. Like the more than a billion litres in 2006 notes Chevalier. Though on a positive note, “Ottawa has replaced the faulty gates and significantly cut down on sewage spills.”

Different contaminants were listed in other spills as well. For example, more than 1.4 million litres of a chemical called acrylonitrile was leaked after a marine tanker caught fire and exploded in Saint John, N.B., on November 1, 2005.

Environment Canada defines acrylonitrile as “A chemical toxic to human health because of its potential to cause cancer.”

The worry, of course, with these kind of spills is the potentially lingering health or environmental effects. Executive Director of Environmental Defence Rick Smith says, “We're talking about bacterial pollutants, cancer causing pollutants, hormone-disrupting pollutants. All of these things being spilled accidentally, or in an unplanned fashion, in an illegal fashion into the environment on a regular basis.” Scary indeed.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Toronto Star.

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