The Ford government just froze one of the GTA’s biggest sewage projects. Why?

OPINION: The last bill introduced before the summer recess effectively freezes the progress of a sewage project first proposed in 2014 — and there’s no deadline in sight
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 08, 2021
The Ontario government is considering extending the existing York-Durham Sewage System, which brings sewage from York Region to the Duffin Creek plant, in Ajax. (Flickr/York Region)

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Early on the last day of the legislature’s spring sitting, Environment Minister Jeff Yurek rose in the house and introduced Bill 306, the York Region Wastewater Act — the last new bill introduced at Queen’s Park before MPPs retired for the summer and, as it happens, the latest chapter in a major infrastructure project in the Greater Toronto Area that’s been waiting for nearly a decade for approval from the province.

York Region initially proposed a new sewage-treatment plant to service new developments in the northern parts of the municipality back in 2014. The plant would discharge treated sewage into the Lake Simcoe watershed — if it’s ever actually approved.

“Many years have passed since this environmental assessment began, and this government wants to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information on the environmental, social, and financial impacts of alternatives to provide waste-water servicing for upper York,” Yurek told MPPs when he introduced his bill on June 3.

Bill 306, if it’s passed in the fall sitting, would prohibit the minister of environment from taking any action on Upper York Sewage Solutions, a proposed treatment plant and phosphorus-reduction policy, and would also prohibit any other lower-level provincial officer from taking any action on the project. (For good measure, it also indemnifies the government from being sued for any lack of action the government takes in respect to the UYSS.)

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Communities in York Region say the project is long overdue and critical for the municipality’s growth plans; for years, they’ve been advocating for speeding up the environmental-approval process — a necessary step before construction can begin — something only Queen’s Park can do.

Some have reservations about the project, however. Lake Simcoe is a smaller body of water than the Great Lakes and is more sensitive to major sources of pollution, such as treated sewage and phosphorus, which is released both in urban sewage and in agricultural fertilizer. So a newly built sewage-treatment plant, like the one called for by York Region, needs to incorporate much more stringent (and expensive) technologies to reduce the amount of phosphorus that’s discharged into Lake Simcoe.

Whether better outcomes could be accomplished more affordably has been an ongoing debate since very nearly the beginning of the proposal: in her annual report in 2017, then-environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe said that the high costs (and energy consumption) of the water-treatment plants required to meet the standards in the Lake Simcoe watershed were “out of proportion to their environmental benefit” and argued instead for more aggressive, but cheaper measures (per tonne of avoided phosphorus) to curb the use of phosphorus fertilizer in farming.

The Ford government is also weighing a more conventional alternative: extending the existing York-Durham Sewage System — a trunk sewer that brings millions of litres of sewage per day from York Region to the Duffin Creek treatment plant in Ajax. Treated sewage could then be discharged into Lake Ontario. Voters in Durham Region, who blame the existing level of sewage discharges for algal blooms in the water off Duffin Creek, want to see tighter pollution controls there, not an increased volume of sewage from York Region.

As if the regional politics of sewage disposal weren’t enough, there’s (predictably) also a housing-affordability element to the story. One reason the government is so interested in more affordable solutions to York Region’s sewage problem is that the eventual costs of construction are going to end up being paid in no small part by new homebuyers, through development charges levied by York Region. If piping York Region’s sewage to the shores of Ajax would, in fact, be cheaper than the UYSS, that could also make homes marginally more affordable — something the Ford government has made one of its core goals.

The immediate effect of Yurek’s bill will be to literally make nothing the only thing the government can do while it waits for the advice of an expert panel. Yurek’s office, contacted by TVO.org this week, could provide no clarity on when the expert panel would be named or, more important, what deadline the government may impose on the panel’s advice.

Earlier this year, Ford expressed some sympathy with York Region for being stuck in a form of growth-planning limbo, agreeing that the project had dragged on “forever” and that York Region’s $100 million investment to date was one point in favour of proceeding with it. But that was January, and now it’s June, and an election is less than a year away. And sometimes in politics, if they can’t find a decision that’s going to make everyone happy, governments are happy to punt a hard call until an election either gives them more breathing room or makes it somebody else’s problem.

The sewers of York Region may not be the last tough decision we watch the Tories delay over the next year.

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