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Environment • Aboriginal • Energy


August 01, 2011

Ottawa's Proposed National Standards for Municipal Wastewater Receive Mixed Reviews

On March 20,2010, the Minister of the Environment published the draft Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, under the Fisheries Act with little fanfare.1 These regulations will create significant progress in addressing an important environmental issue – water pollution. The draft Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations will be the first major addition to the federal water pollution control standards in more than 20 years.

The proposed regulations will adopt minimum national effluent quality standards endorsed by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) as part of its Canadawide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent. It is expected that the final regulations could be published before the end of 2011. Implementation will likely be in 2012. The national standards created under the regulations will ensure facility owners and operators across the country must attain the same minimum performance standards.

New requirements

The proposed regulations would impose three major requirements on the estimated 3,700 land-based wastewater systems under municipal, provincial or federal operation, as well as those on federal land or on Aboriginal land, that discharge effluent to surface waters. These major requirements are:

  • Maximum discharge concentrations for biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), suspended solids, total residual chlorine and un-ionized ammonia. (see the table below);
  • A requirement to monitor effluent and the receiving environment, test effluent toxicity and maintain records and report; and
  • A requirement to prepare and make available for inspection a response plan to prevent, mitigate and remedy the effects arising from any discharges “out of the normal course of events” that contain a deleterious substance from the wastewater system.2 Environment Canada has indicated that it does not intend to use the provision to eliminate combined sewer outfalls, but the wording in the draft regulation suggests otherwise.

Transitional provisions

The regulations include transitional provisions for facilities that will need time to come into compliance. The owner or operator of a wastewater facility will be required to apply for a transitional authorization to obtain additional time to come into compliance. Depending on the environmental risk a facility poses, the time allowed is as follows:

  • A facility producing higher-risk wastewater effluent discharges would have to complete its upgrades by 2020.
  • A facility posing a medium risk will have 20 years to come into compliance.
  • A facility posing a low risk will have an additional 30 years to come into compliance with the regulation.

Environment Canada has stated that the new standards are achievable through the provision of normal secondary wastewater treatment.3 While many modern plants should have no trouble complying, the regulations would require the upgrade of outmoded plants or those that only provide primary treatment.

Environment Canada estimates some 949 facilities will need to be upgraded to meet the new standards; about half of these are in the “high risk” category. In Ontario, the CCME has determined that only three facilities will fall into the high risk category, with the majority of facilities in the low risk category. At the federal level, which includes systems on federal or Aboriginal land, all 150 systems are expected to fall into the high risk category.4

Facilities affected

The proposed regulations will apply to any “wastewater system:”

  • with a daily discharge capacity of 10 cubic metres or more, and
  • that deposits a deleterious substance to surface waters.

The proposed regulations will not apply to any on-site wastewater system at an industrial, commercial or institutional (IC&I) facility if 25% or less of the volume of its effluent is “blackwater.”5

In addition to sewage treatment plants, it appears that the regulation would also cover systems that handle IC&I “drainage water” containing more than 25% blackwater, and other drainage waters (including waterborne wastes and surface runoff) “if mixed with blackwater.” While combined and sanitary sewer overflows should be subject to the standards, it is unclear whether the standards will apply to discharges from separate stormwater collection and discharge systems.


Prior to the regulations coming into force, the federal government will have to negotiate agreements with the provinces to determine each government’s role and responsibility for reporting, compliance, inspection and enforcement activities. It appears that the regulation will come into effect in three stages.

  • Immediately in force:
    • effluent monitoring, record keeping, reporting requirements; and
    • transitional authorizations.
  • Within 24 months:
    • standards for BOD, suspended solids, ammonia.
  • Up to three years:6
    • residual chlorine standard.

To limit the administrative burden, Environment Canada says it will develop a single-window, electronic reporting tool for use by all regulators and facility operators.

Costs of implementation

The proposed regulations have drawn some critical comment, particularly from the municipalities that will be expected to assume the compliance costs, including both capital and operating costs. The Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA), in its brief on the proposed regulations, states that the government has underestimated the economic impacts and overestimated the anticipated benefits. “CWWA strongly believes that a committed funding program on the part of the senior levels of government will be essential to assist municipalities in general and smaller municipalities in particular... it is difficult to imagine that small utilities with fewer resources available to them will be able to comprehend and implement activities to bring them into compliance.”7

According to Environment Canada, the total costs of compliance over the next 30 years are estimated at $10 billion to $13 billion.8 Interestingly, the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement (RIAS) released with the draft regulations sets the costs of compliance at $5.9 billion in discounted 2010 dollars; that figure breaks down into approximately $3.2 billion in capital costs, $1.9 billion for operations and maintenance, and $777 million for additional monitoring and reporting. The bulk of the costs would be borne by the municipalities that own and operate most treatment plants.

This cost estimate has been widely disputed. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) says that detailed cost estimates undertaken by several cities suggest that this estimate is far too low, failing to consider “billions of dollars in capital costs related to collection systems, and management of combined and sanitary sewer overflows.”9

The federal government does not agree with FCM’s cost estimates. According to its impact analysis, “Environment Canada is of the view that the requirements of the proposed Regulations are affordable if all jurisdictions make wastewater funding a priority.”

Despite a long-term commitment to ensure that on-reserve systems are comparable to off-reserve systems, it is not clear that the federal government has a plan to ensure funds are available to bring First Nations wastewater systems into compliance, and to maintain and operate them. Operation and maintenance of wastewater is currently underfunded. The Assembly of First Nations has raised this issue as a concern with any wastewater regulations pertaining to reserve systems since at least 200810.

The Ontario advantage?

With concerns about costs to renew aging infrastructure and bring facilities up to the new standards, Ontario may have an advantage. The Water Opportunities Act creates funding to foster innovative water, wastewater and stormwater technologies. Through WaterTAP, for example, facilities may benefit from allowing new or developing technologies to be used for wastewater treatment at a reduced cost compared to more traditional technologies.

End notes 
1 Canada Gazette, Part I
2 “Normal course of events” is not defined in the regulations. 
3 Speaking Points for the Honourable Jim Prentice, PC, QC, MP, Minister of the Environment, to the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada Conference, Montreal, PQ, on March 26, 2010. View Online 
4 (Proposed) Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations and Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement, Canada Gazette Part 1, Vol. 144, No. 12, March 20, 2010. View Online 
5 Blackwater is undefined in the regulation, but will likely be applied using the common definition of sewage. 
6 Depending on the discharge capacity of the system. 
7 ‘Position Statement on the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations under theFisheries Act,’ as published 2010 March 20 in Canada Gazette, Part 1, submitted by the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, available online at http:// 
8 ‘Environment Canada Makes Available Public Consultation Draft of the Proposed Municipal Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations,’ Environment Canada Backgrounder, February 9, 2010. View Online 
9 ‘The municipal role in protecting Canada’s water: Making the proposed federal Wastewater System Effluent Regulations work,’ FCM Green Municipal Fund newsletter, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, March 2011.View Online 
10 ‘Canada-Wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent and Environment Canada’s Proposed Regulatory Framework for Wastewater, Impacts for First Nation Communities,’ (Assembly of First Nations, January 2008) http://

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