When Environment Canada released new national Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER) in July 2012, it was a surprise to stakeholders, who were expecting more consultation.
But almost two years into the WSER, a document that lays out how wastewater is to be treated before it’s discharged into waterways, pushback from B.C. municipalities has been minimal, said a wastewater engineer.
“I haven’t seen anything that’s causing problems,” said Wayne Wong, of Kerr Wood Leidal Consulting Engineers in Burnaby.
“It seems like business as usual.”
Currently, Canadians dump more than 150 billion litres of untreated and undertreated sewage into the country’s waterways every year.
Before the WSER, national standards were mostly vaguely-worded references to wastewater, as it related primarily to fisheries, said Wong, who is also chair of the B.C. Water and Waste Association’s Wastewater Management Committee.
In the absence of comprehensive national standards, provinces established their own wastewater treatment regulations.
In B.C., the Municipal Wastewater Regulation and local liquid waste management plans took precedence.
However, the introduction of WSER has led to B.C. and Ottawa working together to develop an “equivalency agreement” for wastewater effluent regulations.
B.C.’s progress towards an agreement is similar to other provinces that are trying to develop agreements, which are expected to result in harmonized provincial frameworks.
Timelines for negotiations are set by the federal government and there is no formalized end date, according to Ministry of Environment spokesman David Karn.
When an agreement is reached, B.C.’s regulations would take precedence over the WSER, as long as the provincial system is considered equivalent.
Until there’s an agreement, the WSER stands.
The national regulations set effluent quality standards to be achieved by secondary treatment of wastewater prior to discharge.
It focuses on the removal of four deleterious substances: carbonaceous biochemical oxygen-demanding matter, suspended solids, total residual chlorine and <0x000a>un-ionized ammonia.
The regulations will apply to any wastewater system that collects 100 cubic metres (100,000 litres) or more of flow each day, or an average daily volume of 100 cubic metres or more, said Wong, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering and is a specialist in pollution control.
Most sewage systems in B.C. would fall under the WSER, the exceptions being very small subdivisions with fewer than six or so homes or owners of individual septic tanks, Wong said.
The WSER requires owners and operators of wastewater systems to monitor and report effluent quality and quantity.
Systems will be rated as either low, medium or high risk.
A smaller sewage system that discharges wastewater into a large body of water would be considered low risk.
A larger system, typically urban, that discharges wastewater into a bay or confined body of water, would naturally rate as higher risk, Wong said.
Flow rates and concentrations of deleterious substances are also considered in the risk assessment.
With almost two years to monitor their systems, municipalities have submitted reports to Environment Canada, which studies the data and determines which municipalities are meeting the WSER’s standards.
“For systems that can’t fully comply, the regulations allow time to comply,” Wong said, noting that design and construction of upgrades don’t happen overnight.
Environment Canada estimates that about 75 per cent of existing sewage systems already meet the minimum secondary treatment standards and thus, don’t require upgrading.
For the remaining 25 per cent that have to upgrade, a staggered system is in place.
Systems posing a high risk must meet effluent quality standards by the end of 2020, medium risk by the end of 2030 and low risk by the end of 2040.
For operators, who think they may not meet the deadlines, they can apply for “transitional authorization” which would allow for extra time, with high risk systems getting smaller extensions than low risk, Wong said.
The deadline to apply for transitional authorization is July 2014.
The cost to individual municipalities to reach compliance is unknown, but Environment Canada expects long-term total capital costs to be about $3 billion, operating and maintenance costs around $1.7 billion and monitoring and reporting related costs of $748 million.
Achieving compliance will provide a venue for new technologies.
“The legislation gives time to look for alternatives,” Wong said.
One example is technology which can retrofit a sewage lagoon to provide secondary treatment.
And WSER can be the impetus to consider waste as something other than a product to be disposed of.
“This is a good opportunity to think outside of the box,” Wong said.
“There are opportunities to recover resources from wastewater.”
Heat energy is one possibility as are the elements of nitrogen and phosphorous, which can be converted to fertilizer.
Selling the recovered products could help fund the wastewater systems.
“This might be the trigger for synergies,” Wong said.