The Ford government just froze one of the GTA’s biggest sewer projects. Why?
Early on the last day of the Legislative Assembly’s spring sitting, Environment Minister Jeff Yurek rose in the House and introduced Bill 306, the region’s Wastewater Act. of York – the last new bill introduced at Queen’s Park before MPs retire for the summer and, in this case, the latest chapter in a major infrastructure project in the Greater Toronto Area that has been waiting for provincial approval for nearly a decade.
York Region originally proposed a new wastewater treatment plant to service new developments in the northern parts of the municipality in 2014. The plant would discharge the treated wastewater into the Lake Simcoe watershed – if ever it is. approved.
“Many years have passed since this environmental assessment began, and this government wants to ensure that we have the most recent information on the environmental, social and financial impacts of alternatives to provide wastewater services to Upper York, ”Yurek told MPs when he introduced his bill on June 3.
Bill 306, if passed in the fall sitting, would prohibit the Minister of the Environment from taking action Upper York Sewer Solutions, a proposed processing plant and a phosphorus reduction policy, and would also prohibit any other lower level provincial officer from taking action on the project. (For good measure, he also compensates the government for being sued for any lack of action the government takes on the UYSS.)
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York Region communities say the project is long overdue and essential to the city’s growth plans; for years, they’ve advocated for speeding up the environmental approval process – a necessary step before construction can begin – something only Queen’s Park can do.
However, some have reservations about the project. Lake Simcoe is a smaller body of water than the Great Lakes and is more sensitive to major sources of pollution, such as treated wastewater and phosphorus, which is released to both urban wastewater and agricultural fertilizers. . For example, a new wastewater treatment plant, like the one requested by York Region, must incorporate much more stringent (and expensive) technologies to reduce the amount of phosphorus being discharged into Lake Simcoe.
Whether better results could be achieved more affordably has been an ongoing debate since almost the start of the proposal: in her annual report in 2017, then Environment Commissioner Dianne Saxe said stated that the high costs (and energy consumption) of water treatment plants required to meet standards in the Lake Simcoe watershed were “out of proportion to their environmental benefit” and called for more aggressive, but cheaper (per tonne of phosphorus avoided) measures to limit the use of phosphorus fertilizers in agriculture.
The Ford government is also considering a more conventional alternative: extension of the existing York-Durham sewage system – a main sewer that transports millions of liters of wastewater per day from York Region to the Duffin Creek treatment plant in Ajax. The treated wastewater could then be discharged into Lake Ontario. Voters in Durham Region, who blame the current level of sewage discharge for the algae blooms in the water off Duffin Creek, want to see stricter pollution controls there, not an increase in the volume of wastewater from York Region.
As if regional sewage disposal policy weren’t enough, there is (as might be expected) a housing affordability element to the story as well. One of the reasons the government is so interested in more affordable solutions to York Region’s wastewater problem is that the eventual construction costs will end up being largely paid for by new home buyers, thanks to the development charges collected by York Region. If piping sewage from York Region to the banks of the Ajax was, in fact, cheaper than the UYSS, it could also make homes slightly more affordable, which the Ford government has done to one of its main objectives.
The immediate effect of Yurek’s bill will be to literally do nothing the only thing the government can do while waiting for the advice of a panel of experts. Yurek’s office, contacted by TVO.org this week, could not provide any details on when the panel of experts would be appointed or, more importantly, on how much time the government might impose on the opinion of the group.
Earlier this year, Ford expressed some sympathy with York Region for being stuck in some form of growth planning limbo, agreeing that the project had dragged on “forever” and that York Region’s $ 100 million investment to date was a point in favor of its implementation. But that was January, and now it’s June, and an election is less than a year away. And sometimes in politics, if they can’t come up with a decision that will make everyone happy, governments are happy to make a hard appeal until an election gives them more leeway or makes it so. someone else’s problem.
York Region sewers may not be the last tough decision we will see the Conservatives delay in the next year or so.