I'm here to talk about the lessons learned from the biosolids environmental assessment that was undertaken for the Highland Creek sewage treatment plant in the city of Toronto.
My name is Frank Moir. I'm the co-chair of the Highland Creek sewage treatment plant neighbourhood liaison committee. This committee provides an information bridge between the City of Toronto plant staff and the adjacent community. We meet twice a year to discuss matters of mutual interest.
Highland Creek is one of the four treatment plants in the city of Toronto. The plant was built in 1955 and is located at the mouth of Highland Creek in eastern Scarborough. There are four plants in the city. The main plant, Ashbridges Bay, is right downtown. There's one in the west, the Humber, and a small one up on the Don River.
What is a biosolid? A biosolid—sludge—is the highly odorous solid-liquid material left after the treatment of sewage. It contains pathogens, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, heavy metals, various industrial chemicals, pharmaceutically active compounds, and other emerging substances of concern. It is not just human waste. It's 25% solid and 75% water.
What is the issue? In 2002 the newly amalgamated City of Toronto wanted to solve the problem of sludge disposal at its four sewage treatment plants. It was decided to undertake a biosolids master plan class environmental assessment.
This is a municipal class environmental assessment, and is managed by the proponent, which in this case is the City of Toronto. Proponents must follow the planning process set out in the provincially approved class EA document. All class EA reports must be submitted to the provincial Minister of the Environment for final approval. If there remain significant environmental concerns that are not resolved through the class EA process, the minister may decide to intervene.
As far as Highland Creek EA was concerned, there were three main steps. The first step was to define the problem; the second step, to identify possible solutions to solve the problem; and the third step, to identify the preferred solution to solve the problem.
In the first stage, the city needed to define the problem. The city needed a safe and environmentally acceptable solution for biosolids disposal for the next 20 years. The sewage treatment plant was built in the 1950s, and Highland Creek had sludge incinerators installed in 1975. They have been operating continuously since then. However, the incineration equipment is outdated and needs replacement.
Eleven alternative solutions, in step two, were looked at for Highland Creek, and then a short list of three possible solutions was selected: continue on-site incineration; land application, sometimes called beneficial use; and landfilling or landfill cover. The results of the analysis were reviewed with interested agencies and the public.
In step three, the preferred solution was selected. The three shortlisted options were evaluated for 21 environmental, social, and economic indicators. The highest-scoring option, and the preferred alternative for Highland Creek, was for new updated incinerators with enhanced emission controls. In October 2009 the final report was tabled for a 30-day public review and there were no objections. Council accepted the solution for three of the plants, but not for Highland Creek. More studies were requested.
The staff undertook the additional studies, but again recommended the incinerator upgrade for Highland Creek because it was the least-cost solution, it had the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, and it had the least negative social impact on the community. It provided a safe and reliable solution familiar to plant operators. It was preferred by the local community because it avoided having five large odorous sludge trucks passing through seven kilometres of local streets every morning.
Then council reversed the environmental assessment decision. In June 2010 council ignored the EA recommendation and voted to implement agricultural land spreading, with landfill as a backup.
The community was shocked to hear council's decision. Letters were written to newspapers; 1,500 signed petitions were submitted, requesting the city restudy the issue; presentations were made to various city committees; and a meeting was held with Ministry of the Environment staff to express our concerns that the city had acted illegally.
The city, however, had a problem. Many councillors wanted their solution implemented, but council hadn't approved the environmental assessment report for Highland Creek. So the city said they had to hold another public meeting to inform the community of council's decision. They had that meeting, and they reported the city's preference for land-spreading. However, there was very strong community support for the incinerator upgrade.
Staff promised to issue a revised biosolids master plan report for 30-day public review by early 2012. However, they did not deliver.
Just to give you a little history—I have some pictures for you in the final PowerPoint presentation—sludge trucks are big, long trucks that are loaded from the top and tip out. They have canvas rollback covers. They don't have a sealed cover on top. When this thing drives down the highway, the canvas stops the rain getting in but it doesn't stop the odours getting out.
The route in Highland Creek is seven kilometres from the treatment plant through a very busy neighbourhood in eastern Scarborough. It goes up across Kingston Road, along Lawrence and Morningside, up past the new Centennial computer centre, past the new aquatic centre that's being built for the Pan Am Games, and to the 401. Then it goes we're not sure where.
This is distinctly different from the situation in Ashbridges Bay, where the plant is only half a kilometre from the Gardiner Expressway. The trucks don't go through any residential areas. But these areas are residential and commercial, and include schools.
In 2005 Toronto was trucking its sludge to Michigan, and one of the trucks spilled right in the middle of the town of Flat Rock. What happened was that the truck came to a halt—the sludge is basically solid, but when you shake it, it goes to liquid—so it all spilled over the front of the truck right onto the street. It took two days to clean up. Six to nine months later, the State of Michigan closed the border to Toronto sludge and also garbage. At that point, Toronto had to make very rapid alternative arrangements.
What are other communities doing? The adjacent regions of York and Durham, which are to the north and east of the city, and Peel on the west all use sludge incineration with emission controls. This is also the case for many large North American and European cities. Many food producers will not accept produce grown on land fertilized with biosolids.
The city finally backed down in the summer of 2012. They met with Ministry of the Environment staff to discuss the situation. The MOE staff cautioned that the city might have trouble getting the biosolids master plan EA approved because of community opposition. Requests to the Minister of the Environment for a bump-up, if successful, could have delayed the work on all four plants. The city staff decided to close off the existing biosolids master plan for the three plants and do a new EA for Highland Creek.
Council agreed in November 2013 to the new EA. The work started in April 2014 and will take 12 to 18 months. All possible options for sludge disposal will be considered and evaluated. Public consultation will be an important part of the process. The first meeting is scheduled for next week.
In conclusion, there were some lessons learned. By not accepting the preferred solution recommended in this class environmental assessment, the city council did not adhere to the principles of the municipal class EA. The city staff were unable to rewrite the final biosolids master plan report to justify city council's decision. And the threat that the minister might not approve the EA because of opposition from the Highland Creek community was sufficient to trigger a new EA for Highland Creek.
I will conclude by saying that environmental assessment is an important and effective tool to ensure that citizens' voices are heard. Getting involved in community affairs is important.
Thank you for your time.