Why sewers are overflowing across Ontario

Dozens of municipalities still use combined sewers. In Timmins, that means waste released into lakes — and basements
By Andrew Autio - Published on April 1, 2019
Porcupine Lake
Many homeowners living near Porcupine Lake, in the east end of Timmins, have had to deal with sewage backups. (Andrew Autio)

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TIMMINS — Lianne Raymond and her family moved into their house on Porcupine Lake in August 1995. Less than eight months later, they experienced their first sewage backup, when two and a half feet of feces-ridden sludge filled their basement.

The renovated basement had contained a family room, office, bedroom, bathroom, and sauna. “That was devastating, because we lost everything,” she says.

Less serious backups damaged the basement again in 2009 and 2011. The family has since invested in an industrial back-water valve, complete with alarms. 

“This year alone, honest to God, I’ve lost count of how many sewer backups we would have had if we weren’t equipped the way we are,” Raymond says.

But not everyone has that kind of safeguard, and for dozens of homeowners living near Porcupine Lake, in the east end of Timmins, each rainfall and thaw is a stressful event: many in the area have dealt with backups of their own.

That’s because the city’s infrastructure can’t handle periods of heavy precipitation. Its twinned lines, which see sanitary water and stormwater run through the same pipes, allow sewage to collect in stormwater. That raw sewage is then released into the lake — or, as in Raymond’s case — into homes.

During a storm, everything from human waste, detergents, and pharmaceuticals, to food waste, condoms, and petroleum can enter the local waterways. There, dangerous pathogens, including E.coli, can create toxic algae blooms.

Combined sewers are not limited to Timmins: 57 of them can be found in 44 Ontario municipalities, including Kingston, London, Ottawa, and Toronto.

Many of them date back to the 1940s or earlier — the province has prohibited their installation since 1985. It recommends that municipalities where they’re still in place build storage tanks to hold the mixed sewage until it can be properly treated, reduce the amount of stormwater that flows into the system, and develop green above-ground infrastructure that absorbs and holds water. 

A total of 766 combined sewer overflows occurred across the province in 2017-18. Only 26 municipalities have released plans to meet these requirements (they are not obliged to make the plans public). 

In 2012, the Ministry of Environment, Conservation, and Parks ordered Timmins to address the issue of sewage bypasses into Porcupine Lake. Construction on Lift Station #4 — a new water-treatment facility in the east end that includes two holding tanks each designed to contain up to four million litres of sewage — began in 2014, but the project, scheduled for completion in 2017, was delayed after the holding tanks sank into the area’s soft soil.

Members of the public filed a complaint with the ministry in May 2017 arguing that the city was failing to meet its deadlines for upgrades and that sewage bypasses were an ongoing problem. An MECP investigation confirmed that the city was breaking the law and failing to meet its deadlines, but it accepted the city’s explanations  — new construction was being hampered by ground-stabilization issues — and imposed no penalties. 

“We reviewed the facts and concluded the City’s reasons for missing these compliance dates were reasonable and amended the relevant compliance dates in the Order,” a ministry spokesperson told TVO.org via email.

The lack of action did not sit well with Dianne Saxe, then the province’s environmental commissioner.

Her 2018 Environmental Protection Report, released in November, days before her office was axed by the government, states, “Unfortunately, the ministry took no enforcement action, accepted the city’s excuses for its non-compliance, and extended the deadlines for system upgrades.” 

Saxe’s criticism of the ministry extends beyond the situation in Timmins: “The MECP is well aware of the harm of combined sewer overflows, but has not taken effective measures to bring them to an end,” she writes.

“We’re certainly lagging behind where we want to be at this point, but it is the most significant project the city has in front of it,” says Timmins chief administrative officer Dave Landers, adding that the city is required to provide a detailed update each month.

Timmins, though, still hasn’t set a revised target date for the completion of Lift Station #4. 

So what happens if a municipality continues to ignore its deadlines for upgrades?

“The ministry has a wide variety of compliance and enforcement tools to address environmental violations and bring sites, facilities and individuals back into compliance – ranging from education and voluntary action plans to mandatory measures such as tickets, orders or environmental penalties. More serious matters are referred to the Investigations and Enforcement Branch for investigation and possible prosecution,” the ministry spokesperson wrote.

Since 2004, the ministry has pursued two successful sewage-related prosecutions against municipalities that failed to comply with provincial officers’ orders. (There have been two convictions against the City of Timmins, in 2005 and 2007, but both were related to drinking water.)

For homeowners near Porcupine Lake, the delays are becoming increasingly frustrating.

“It’s disgusting, and it’s a shame because most people take pride in living on a lake and being near the water, and we like to say it’s just the weeds on the shoreline that make it stink, but it’s not,” says Raymond. “It’s s**t.”

Andrew Autio is a freelance journalist based in Timmins.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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