By Lauren Brown Hornor

Today, Fraser Riverkeeper submits its comments in support of Metro Vancouver’s proposal to upgrade Iona Plant to tertiary level of wastewater treatment. 

It takes time, resilience, patience, and leadership to build a community of people working for swimmable, drinkable fishable water.  

The recent announcement by Metro Vancouver that the Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, after 57 years of functioning as a rudimentary primary treatment facility (discharging undertreated sewage directly into the Salish Sea), will be upgraded to a tertiary plant (one that has the potential to be truly protective of water quality and fish habitat), underscores how dedication, hard work and a team of passionate people can make a meaningful impact.

In late June 2020, the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District Board approved the preliminary design of the Iona Plant’s upgrade, which includes plans for tertiary treatment methods to be completed by 2030. Metro Vancouver is poised to vote on the final design in January 2021.  

Tertiary treatment is certainly the best option for Metro Vancouver communities because it will prevent the largest quantity of harmful toxins like nitrogen, ammonia, metals and microplastics from polluting the Salish Sea.  However, we must ensure the most protective and effective version of tertiary treatment methods are adopted to protect the sensitive receiving waters, its inhabitants, and coastal communities. 

Pollution Runs Through It

Vancouver salmon runs, just as they prepare to spawn, face a toxic soup of sewage and industrial pollution. The Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant (“Iona Plant”) outflow is discharged directly into the Salish Sea just at the mouth of the Fraser River, the most important salmon bearing river in BC.  The Salish Sea and Fraser River are sensitive, ecologically vital areas that are under ongoing stress in great part due to decades of receiving highly contaminated effluent from the Iona Plant’s discharges.

Without advanced treatment to mitigate the impacts, the discharged effluent that carries toxic contaminants and persistent, bioaccumulative toxins including DDT, PCBs, PFOS, PFOA, copper phthalates, bisphenols, pesticides and microplastics are released directly into the habitat critical for endangered Southern Resident orcas and wild Pacific salmon. These pollutants from household and industrial sources enter the food chain through small organisms, which ultimately make their way up the food chain. Such contaminants are known to disrupt the reproductive and developmental health of these iconic species.  

Fishable Water 

Fraser Riverkeeper, an initiative of Swim Drink Fish, is a charity working for a day when every person can safely touch the water, when the water is pure enough to drink, and when the lake is clean and wild enough that you could toss in a line anywhere and pull out a fish. 

You hear us talking regularly about drinkable water and even more about swimmable water. But what about fishable

Fishable means water that supports a thriving aquatic biodiversity. Fishable means the water is healthy enough to support abundant and diverse aquatic life able to reproduce naturally.  Fishable means the aquatic environment is one that supports a thriving aquatic ecosystem and fish habitat. 

Fraser Riverkeeper believes a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future is possible. This vision requires a commitment to clean water and sound environmental policy, transparent and informed decision-making, public education, and community-building programs.

Image: Graphic rendering of the Iona Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrade. Source: Metro Vancouver

Let’s Back Up.  Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, Oh My!

Today, the Iona Plant operates just using primary treatment, the same mechanical process it used to treat sewage and wastewater in 1963, when the facility was first built.¹  Essentially settling out the solids “chunks” from the liquids,  primary treatment, does not prevent pathogens like E.coli, toxins like pharmaceutical products and excess nitrogen, waterborne viruses, nor microplastics from entering the receiving waterbody.²  The water leaving a primary treatment plant is little more than raw sewage, and essentially depletes surrounding waters of oxygen, which in turn has a measurably negative effect on fish populations.³  

Secondary treatment of wastewater, the next level up for protective processes of wastewater,  involves both physical and biological treatment of wastewater.  Secondary treatment further removes dissolved and suspended organic matter using aerobic bacteria to consume bacteria and pathogens. Secondary treatment is the minimum standard required by the federal government under the Wastewater Systems Effluent regulations, and Metro Vancouver is required to upgrade all wastewater treatment plants to a minimum of secondary treatment by 2030.  However, while an improvement, secondary treatment does not filter out microplastics, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, nor does it remove remaining inorganic compounds such as nitrogen and phosphorus - two contaminants known for causing harmful algal blooms. 

Tertiary treatment, in its purest and most advanced form, is the most significant level of wastewater treatment available, and can remove enough contaminants that water is nearly drinkable.  Tertiary treatment should also employ additional biological processes to significantly reduce solids and pharmaceuticals being discharged in wastewater effluent. Zack Shoom, founding director at Obabika Consultant Society, wrote an exciting guest blog in January 2020 detailing why upgrading the Iona Wastewater Treatment Plant is a crucial step in restoring the health of the Salish Sea.

The Opportunity of a Lifetime

Vancouver now faces an opportunity of a lifetime. 

In late July of 2020, Metro Vancouver announced the Iona plant, the Lower Mainland’s largest wastewater treatment facility, would undergo a massive upgrade by 2030 in its Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant Project Design Concept. The proposal presents an exceptionally rare opportunity to tackle a significant source of pollution to the Salish Sea. 

Over the next decade, the Iona Plant, sitting at the mouth of the ecologically significant Fraser River estuary and discharging into the Salish Sea, is has the potential to transform from an antiquated, polluting primary treatment plant to a sustainable true tertiary or “tertiary 2”  treatment facility. 

Treating wastewater at the Iona Island Plant to the tertiary level at a minimum before the 2030 deadline would curb the flow of harmful contaminants into receiving waters and protect the health of the Salish Sea, its surrounding communities and inhabitants.

Image: The Fraser River Estuary. Part of an amazing set of images by photographer and biologist, Fernando Lessa. 

The Potential to Achieve “True Tertiary“

The current design concept involves tertiary 1 treatment of wastewater (the most basic form of tertiary treatment).  The good news is the plan includes opportunities for resource recovery, increased integration with Iona Beach Regional Park and nearby communities, and several ecological developments that aim to improve water quality, restore and protect fish and bird habitat, and generally improve the surrounding terrestrial ecosystems. 

While Fraser Riverkeeper commends Metro Vancouver for electing to move to tertiary treatment, we encourage adoption of the most protective technology and best practices in order to reach tertiary 2, the most technologically sophisticated and protective version of tertiary wastewater treatment.  Upgrading the Iona plant to tertiary 2 could enable Iona Plant to achieve full nutrient removal and accelerated resource recovery.⁴  

Now is the time to take meaningful action to reduce the Iona Plant’s impact on the Salish Sea and its inhabitants.  Failure to implement the best possible treatment to a wastewater treatment plant of this size is to risk jeopardizing a global ecosystem rooted in the Pacific ocean. Adopting tertiary 2 would  mark a significant step in the prevention of further environmental damage, drastically limiting the quantities of contaminants, toxins, and microplastics discharged from Iona Plant. 

It Takes a Village

We recognize and appreciate the great lengths the Metro Vancouver team has taken to continue the Project, collect public input and overcome the serious challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is also a significant moment for the NGO community, Musqueam First Nation, individuals, and countless stakeholders that have been working on this issue including, most notably, Georgia Strait Alliance, Ecojustice, Surfrider Vancouver, and Obabika Consulting who have been advocating for the health of our waters for decades to step in and encourage Metro Vancouver to adopt and implement the most protective standards for the new version of the Iona Plant.  

Realizing the Legacy

News that Metro Vancouver will replace the outdated treatment plant on Iona Island takes us back to the story of our first Fraser Riverkeeper, Douglas Chapman, and how the Iona Wastewater Treatment Plant has played a central role in the history of our organization.

To ensure our waters are swimmable, drinkable, and fishable for everyone, everywhere, it takes true leadership. The type of leadership that brings people together and magnifies the voices of everyone. The type of leadership Chapman brought to the Waterkeeper movement. It was his work and vision that laid the foundation for this work as we move toward tertiary treatment.

 

Image: Riverkeeper Doug Chapman at the wheel of new boat. Photo by Mary Woodbury. 

A fierce and famed environmental prosecutor, in 1991 Chapman left the government and started his own environmental law firm. He then took a job with Sierra Legal Defence Fund (now Ecojustice) and started prosecuting polluters as a private prosecutor. And after successful cases in Kingston & Hamilton he returned to the west with Ecojustice. 

In 2007, the beleaguered salmon runs of the Fraser River gained a new guardian in Chapman, a renowned environmental lawyer and seasoned prosecutor of environmental crime. Chapman became the first Riverkeeper when we launched the organization officially, and we laid charges using the Canadian Fisheries Act against Metro Vancouver and the Province for dumping toxic sewage from the Iona Island sewage treatment plant directly into the important salmon habitat of the Fraser River mouth.  

The Fisheries Act protects fish and fish habitat by making the destruction of fish and fish habitat, and depositing of deleterious substances into waters frequented by fish a criminal activity. The Act is quasi-criminal and allows for a citizen to step into the role of government to enforce the law.  Chapman, as the Fraser Riverkeeper, was that person.  And it was this case against the Iona plant that Fraser Riverkeeper chose to feature in its inaugural announcements and press conferences. It was that important to Doug.

The criminal proceedings were subsequently taken over and stayed by the federal government, on the grounds that it was "not in the public interest" to enforce the law against this chronic offender.

In 2009, Canada established the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River. The goal was to investigate the decline of sockeye salmon stocks and provide recommendations in its written submissions. Fraser Riverkeeper was one of six groups that made up a “Conservation Coalition” and put forward recommendations that would limit contaminants from entering the natural environment, particularly persistent and bioaccumulative contaminants, as well as ensure adequate monitoring of the worst contaminants.  In particular, we recommended the Iona wastewater treatment plant should be upgraded with better than secondary treatment since by the time it is built.  The commission’s final report, The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye, included 75 recommendations on a range of issues including 

A couple years later in 2011, Fraser Riverkeeper and Waterkeepers from across Canada joined in an application to the Council of Environmental Cooperation (“CEC”), an international regulatory body set up under NAFTA, to conduct an investigation into possible failure by Canada to enforce its own environmental laws. In the submission, nine groups asked the CEC to document "the failure of the Canadian government to adequately enforce its environmental laws."  While the CEC accepted the application for consideration, the Secretariat determined not to recommend the preparation of a faction record and the claim was terminated. 

Chapman and the Fraser Riverkeeper team, including his partner Caroline McDonald, who was a founding board member along with Mark Mattson, and our amazing team of staff and volunteers forged onward. We built alliances with other organizations and began monitoring and sampling recreational water for E.coli bacteria present sewage. Connecting people to the water’s edge, collecting data and sharing results on Swim Guide to informing the public about the impact an overburdened sewage infrastructure has on recreational water quality helped attract and engage a movement of people.

Doug Chapman passed away on April 4, 2012. It was a huge loss for all of us who Doug mentored, inspired and supported in his work for clean water.  He has left his mark on us and taught us the importance of building a team as we carry on his legacy.  

Image: Riverkeepers Doug Chapman and Lauren Brown Hornor, June 2011.

Doug Would Be Proud

The pressure on Vancouver to upgrade the Iona Sewage treatment plant continued on. Doug did not live to see the first stage of the upgrade to the Iona plant. But really, that wasn’t as much his goal as building a team and a community that would keep fighting for clean water when he could not.  His last words to me were “Give ‘em hell”.

The decision in Vancouver this summer to upgrade to tertiary treatment at the Iona Plant is but another sign that Doug and his legacy are still growing. The fish will be protected. The community will reconnect with the water. And the Fraser Riverkeeper, Waterkeepers and Swim Drink Fish community that followed will keep on.  Keep building.  Keep working for swimmable drinkable fishable water. 

Today, Fraser Riverkeeper submitted its comments in support of Metro Vancouver’s proposal to upgrade Iona Plant to tertiary, but urged that upon completion of the upgrade, wastewater at the Iona Plant be treated to the full tertiary 2 level, including full nutrient removal and accelerated resource recovery.

And in 2030 when the work is done and the pollution has abated, our teams will still be working and Doug’s legacy will continue to grow.

 

Sources:

  1. Iona Island, Richmond. Metro Vancouver.
  2. A Rare Opportunity For a Healthier Salish Sea. Guest blog by Zack Shoom.
  3. Canadian Water Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life: Dissolved Oxygen. 
  4. Recovery of Nutrients From Wastewaters Using Microalgae. Article by Francisco Gabriel Acien Fernandez, Cintia Gomez-Serrano and Jose Maria Fernadez-Sevilla

 

Lauren Brown Hornor has been drawn to water ever since she was a little girl, hunting for shells on the Florida beaches where she grew up. Channeling her love of water, pursued a career in environmental law and provided legal support and guidance to Waterkeeper organizations located across the country while working as an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance in New York.

 After launching Fraser Riverkeeper in 2007 and serving as the Executive Director of Fraser Riverkeeper for 11 years, Lauren moved to the role of Strategic Partnership Lead with Swim Drink Fish Canada. Lauren co-founded Miami Waterkeeper in 2010 and served as its Board Chair for 10 years. Lauren's commitment to clean water was recognized at the 2016 Waterkeeper Gala in Toronto as one of twelve Swim Drink Fish Ambassadors in 2016, and Lauren was named a 2019 YWCA Women of Distinction Award Recipient for Environmental Sustainability in Vancouver.

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