a giant `toilet,' study finds
The Toronto Star
Published November 28, 2006
Billions of litres of untreated urban sewage and toxic
effluents that flow into the Great Lakes each year are
threatening a critical ecosystem that supplies drinking
water to millions of people, a landmark study to be released
Even though municipalities in the Great Lakes region
have spent vast sums of money in recent decades upgrading
their waste-water plants, the situation remains appalling,
says the report by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.
"The problem of inadequate sewage treatment is particularly
disturbing because sewage is not simply what gets flushed
down our sinks and toilets," the report states.
"In fact, typical municipal sewage is a foul cocktail
of human waste, micro-organisms, disease-causing pathogens
and hundreds of highly toxic chemicals."
Sierra Legal bills the study of 20 Canadian and American
cities as the "first-ever ecosystem-based survey
and analysis" of municipal sewage treatment and discharges
into the Great Lakes basin.
The survey graded municipalities in areas such as collection,
treatment and disposal of sewage based on information
provided by the local governments.
The main problem, the study concludes, is that in many
cases, antiquated sewage systems are incapable of dealing
effectively with the vast amounts of effluent that flow
The situation is especially bad when heavy rains overwhelm
treatment systems in cities where storm run-off is collected
in the same pipes as sewage.
Some 90 billion litres of untreated effluent enter the
Great Lakes every year through combined sewage overflows,
the study found.
That's the equivalent of more than 100 Olympic-sized
swimming pools full of raw sewage every day, Elaine MacDonald,
the scientist who did the study, said in an interview.
At the same time, it takes about a century for the Great
Lakes to completely recharge.
"When you think of 100 years to flush out the Great
Lakes and 100 years of sewage being dumped in at this
rate, that has quite an impact on quality of the water,"
Canada's worst offender was Windsor, Ont., which — along
with U.S. cities Detroit and Cleveland — performed "abysmally."
Cities such as Toronto and Hamilton also earned below-average
At the top end, Peel Region just west of Toronto, Green
Bay, Wisc., and Duluth, Minn., were the best performers,
thanks largely to their ability to keep rain water and
The report makes several recommendations, including improving
water conservation in order to reduce the flow to sewage
plants, and keeping rain water out of sewers by disconnecting
downspouts and separating storm drains and sewer systems.
It's critical to keep toxins out of drains, the report
notes, given that many sewage-treatment plants are incapable
of dealing with them and hazardous substances end up in
the lakes, or in sludge that is used for agricultural
purposes or dumped in landfills.
"We need to change our ways and stop treating the
Great Lakes like a toilet," the report concludes.
The report also calls on national, provincial and state
governments, along with scores of municipalities, to work
together to beef up infrastructure, harmonize legislation
and ensure enforcement.