Southwestern Ontario cities, led by Windsor and London, are among the worst sewage polluters on the Great Lakes, a just-released report card on 12 Ontario cities shows

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You flush and forget.

But billions of litres of raw or partly treated sewage flows into Ontario’s rivers and lakes each year, and Southwestern Ontario cities — led by London and Windsor — are among the worst offenders studied in an environmental watchdog’s new report card on the issue.

The report, by the non-profit group Ecojustice, gives London the second-worst ranking among 12 Ontario cities — just behind Windsor — in how they manage sewage and wastewater.

While London gets a grade of C-minus, largely because it allows more than 2% of its sewage into its river without full treatment, Sarnia is in the middle of the pack with a C-plus.

Toronto, the nation’s largest city, ranked third from the bottom of the list, just behind London, with a C.

“It was disappointing to discover there’s still a significant problem, said Liat Podolsky, a scientist at Ecojustice and the report’s main author.

“Billions of litres of sewage are going into the Great Lakes,” she said. “It impacts the water quality of the Great Lakes. It limits recreational enjoyment. It impacts biodiversity. It shouldn’t be happening.”

The same Great Lakes into which Southwestern Ontario pollution flows, also provide much of the drinking water for the region.

Most of the pollution takes place after heavy rains, when sewage systems are overwhelmed.

Diluted but raw sewage flows into water bodies from combined sewer-stormwater pipes and when partly treated sewage is allowed to flow away rather than back up into basements.

The net effect, says this report card? It’s pollution that endangers people, plants and animals.

One London politician says there just isn’t enough cash to completely solve the issue.

“Every municipality has issues and you should never be happy until you have no issues,” said London Coun. Bud Polhill. “(But) The fact is, there isn’t enough money to go around to manage it all.”

He said Londoners are already annoyed their monthly sewer surcharge in many cases exceeds the cost of their water use.

“You can make anything perfect as long as you want to spend a lot of money, and as long as it’s not yours,” he said.

London has vastly improved its treatment capacity by installing new technology at its sewage plants, he said. But it’s paying now for fixes that were put off 30 years ago.

In Windsor, treatment bypasses during wet weather hit 4.4% of its total sewage volumes.

London wasn’t far behind, with 2.5% of its total sewage.

The report compares a range of municipal sewer and wastewater policies, practices and plans.

Ecojustice asked 25 cities for sewer data, but only a dozen provided it.

The Environment Ministry requires the same data, but Podolsky says it should be made publicly available.

“Until the Ministry . . . increases transparency and public engagement,” Ontarians will know little about treatment performance, the report says.

“That leaves most Ontarians in the dark about the extent of this massive problem and their local communities’ contribution.”

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley says he plans to ask staff to put such information into the public eye on a regular basis.

He said the ranking of the dozen cities doesn’t reflect how they compare with others in Ontario.

“If you decided not to participate, then you’re not part of the discussion,” he said Wednesday.

Even so, he said, Sarnia has just spent $40 million on upgrades as part of an effort to separate its combined storm-sanitary sewers.

That’s just one city, but the problem is far larger than the dozen cities in the Ecojustice report.

“I don’t think there’s one community of the 440 in Ontario that doesn’t have problems as it relates to sewer discharges,” Bradley said.

Without a long-term funding plan, such reports will continue to have similar results, he said.

Ontario’s environmental commissioner has also raised alarms over the issue, reporting in 2011 that more than 100 Ontario municipalities with combined sewer systems allow diluted or raw sewage to overflow in the Great Lakes.

The estimated cost to upgrade civic sewage systems runs in the tens of billions of dollars, said Podolsky.

Ontario’s environmental commissioner estimated the backlog of needed repairs as high as $18 billion just a few years ago.

In London, officials the problem is partly that most homes built before 1985 have weeping tiles connected to storm drains, connected to sewer pipes. Until those are separated, sewer overflows will continue.

Sarnia and London each have about 25 km of combined sewers.

Podolsky said there’s a link between old cities and big problems. Newer cities — like Peel Region and York — scored well on the report card.

“The communities that are doing well don’t have aging infrastructure,” she said.

New federal regulations will require municipalities to keep closer tabs on their water and wastewater discharges.

But upgrades aren’t keeping pace with weather changes, Podolsky noted.

“We’re only going to experience more frequent and intense storms. It’s only going to get worse.”

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  • A 22-question survey was sent to 25 centres in Ontario’s Great Lakes Basin.
  • It included questions about sewage treatment levels, the number and volume of combined sewage outflows, the number and volume of treatment bypasses, sewer use bylaws, sewer improvement plans and use of green infrastructure.

And the rest of Southwestern Ontario?

  • Sarnia and London were the only two cities in the region among the 25 in Ontario asked to provide information.
  • While Ecojustice focused on larger centres, most municipalities lack the sewage-treatment capacity needed for large storms.
  • “I think it’s fair to say that others are certainly contributing to the problem,” Podolsky said.

A closer look at the grades

London (C-)


Treatment level is high, sewer use bylaw is new, existing and future improvement plans good


Too many wet-weather bypasses, no way to quantify the number or volume of combined-sewer outflows, effluent quality only fair

Sarnia (C+)


Treatment level is good, few outflows from combined sewers


Too many wet-weather bypasses in number and volume, outdated sewer-use bylaw, future management plans below average only average

Peel Region (A-)


Good treatment level, few wet-weather bypasses, excellent effluent quality, up-to-date sewer use bylaw,



  • Biological and chemical pollutants, including human waste, micro-organisms, viruses and pathogens, toxic chemicals and heavy metals, oxygen-depleting substances, suspended solids and nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen-based compounds, toxic metals and synthetic organic chemicals such as cadmium, lead, mercury, silver, zinc and PCBs and heavy metals.
  • Pollutants found in sewage also include drugs, household cleaning products and antibiotics.
  • Some pollutants encourage algae growth, which depletes oxygen for water life including fish.


  • All government levels should fund major sewer system improvements.
  • Ontario should create a fund targeted to reduce sewage in the Great Lakes.
  • Invest more in green infrastructure, such as green roofs to trees, to capture rainfall and reduce storm runoff that can overwhelm sewer systems.
  • Mandatory reporting and public notification of inadequately treated sewage
  • Mandatory monitoring, measuring and reporting on outflows from combined storm-sanitary sewers
  • Encourage the capture and use of heat energy from sewage systems.
  • Convert some of the sewage into methane gas to heat and power treatment plants.
  • Launch a campaign to reduce wastewater from sinks, showers and washers.


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Sewage-polluting cities on the Great Lakes, and ranks and grades given them for dealing with the issue by environmental watchdog Ecojustice:

1. Windsor (C-)

2. London (C-)

3. Toronto (C)

4. St. Catharines (C)

5. Sudbury (C)

6. Sarnia (C+)

7. Brockville (B)

8. Midland (B)

9. Kitchener-Waterloo (B+)

10. Collingwood (B+)

11. York and Durham (B+)

12. Peel Region (A­­-)



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