Metro Vancouver’s plan to clean up wastewater from its largest treatment plant is welcome, say environmental advocates. But more details are needed to ensure everything will be done to protect the Fraser River and Salish Sea, they warn.
The Metro Vancouver board approved a plan to upgrade the 57-year-old Iona Island treatment plant at the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver International Airport on July 31.
The plant treats more than 200 billion litres of wastewater a year from some 600,000 residents and businesses and industry — roughly the equivalent of a supertanker’s cargo being released into the Fraser River every day.
That wastewater is currently receiving primary treatment, the minimum standard. Primary treatment mechanically removes large solids from the wastewater effluent, while higher levels of treatment break down and filter out dissolved solids, nutrients and chemicals.
“Iona is basically filtering out the lumps and dumping it in the Georgia Strait,” said Glen Parker, director of North Shore Streamkeepers, an environmental non-profit organization based in North Vancouver.
Metro Vancouver approved an upgrade to tertiary treatment at the Iona Island plant, the highest level of wastewater treatment available, on July 31.
Zack Shoom, founding director of Obabika, a non-profit strategic studio for environmental efforts, called Metro’s decision “a step in the right direction.”
But key parts of the project design need to be worked out before the decision can be considered an environmental win, he says.
The regional government launched the Iona Island wastewater treatment plant upgrade project in 2018, in collaboration with 14 First Nations, regional agencies, municipalities and environmental organizations.
“This is one of the most interesting, transformational opportunities to really do some amazing work,” said Jerry Dobrovolny, commissioner and chief administrative officer for Metro Vancouver.
The project, scheduled for completion in 2030, will provide the equivalent of 36,000 full-time jobs over its 12-year life, says Dobrovolny. The budget is still in the works.
The upgrade to tertiary treatment was driven by regulatory requirements and environmental priorities, notably the health and biodiversity of the Salish Sea.
Until the project is complete a decade from now, Iona will continue to operate at primary treatment.
However, Metro Vancouver is working on resource recovery options for the plant in the meantime, including capturing natural gas from the waste to power homes, reclaiming wastewater for irrigation at farms and golf courses and extracting nutrients for fertilizer production, says Dobrovolny.
According to a 2002 report from the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, a number of contaminants have been found in wastewater from Vancouver and Victoria, including heavy metals like mercury and lead and organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, which Canada banned from being released into the environment in 1985.
A 2018 study of the region’s Annacis Island wastewater treatment plant in Delta, which employs secondary treatment, found that it releases 30 billion microplastic particles into the Fraser River annually.
Peter Ross, a co-author of the study and vice-president of research at Ocean Wise Conservation Association, says that Iona, with only primary treatment, releases even more microplastic particles.
“Without tertiary treatment, we’re openly allowing toxins like pharmaceuticals, heavy nitrogen- and phosphorous-laden chemicals, into the water. Into all of the environment,” said Shoom, who launched a campaign to push for tertiary treatment at the Iona plant.
The Fraser River estuary and Salish Sea are critical habitats for wild salmon, migratory birds and endangered southern resident killer whales. Wastewater pollutants accumulate in smaller organisms and the effects are magnified up the food chain, with consequences for southern resident killer whales and their main food source, Chinook salmon. Contamination by municipal wastewater has caused sex reversal in salmon populations and endocrine disfunction in orcas, which has been linked to effects on reproductive health, immune systems and development.
Tessa Danelesko, the biodiversity program co-ordinator for the Georgia Strait Alliance, has been working with Obabika to advocate for tertiary treatment at Iona.
“We know that marine mammals, specifically orcas, are among the most contaminated populations that we have in the Salish Sea region,” she said. “As it stands right now, Metro Vancouver’s wastewater discharge is impacting the health of orcas.”
“It’s too important of an issue to push to the side,” said Shoom.
In a May project report, Metro Vancouver reported that the expanded plant would still not provide full treatment in times of heavy rains — about eight per cent of the year.
Danelesko and Shoom said that would harm the environment, and Iona Island should be designed to provide true year-round tertiary treatment.
“What Metro is proposing is a secondary treatment with tertiary-level features, as opposed to true tertiary treatment,” said Shoom.
The design for the Iona plant upgrade is not finalized, and Metro Vancouver’s Dobrovolny said the region is committed to ensuring the upgrade exceeds current and future regulatory requirements.
“We future-proof big projects like this,” he said. “That provides us both the space and the ability to add on as either regulations change or as technology comes online.”
Construction is set to start next year after approval of the final design concept in January. The project is expected to be operational by the end of 2030, in line with a 2012 federal law requiring all wastewater treatment plants to upgrade beyond primary treatment by that date.
The Georgia Strait Alliance’s Danelesko said environmental advocates will be keeping an eye on project design and construction to ensure it provides true tertiary treatment.
“The fight is certainly not over yet,” she added.