In 2016, Midland and Penetanguishene discharged nearly 15 million litres of sewage into Georgian Bay. 

That is about six Olympic sized swimming pools.

The sewage being released by Midland is both untreated and partially treated, while the bypasses from Penetanguishene is fully treated effluent.

The Georgian Bay Preservation Alliance, a registered not-for-profit corporation, released a report on June 27 detailing the sewage that those municipalities have been dumping into Ontario waterways.

According to data they collected from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, the Town of Midland released 9.7 million litres of sewage into Georgian Bay during a number of rain storms in 2016. These discharges lasted a combined 29 hours.

Penetanguishene released over 5.2 million litres of treated sewage into the bay during a combined 31 hours and 35 minutes of discharges that same year. 

During severe storms, older municipal sanitary sewer systems get overwhelmed by the inflow of rain water, given the fact that some storm sewers and sump pumps are improperly connected to the system.

In downtown Midland, the sanitary sewer lines are cross-connected with the storm water lines. When the town receives excessive amounts of rain over a short period of time the municipal sanitary systems can’t handle the increased flow and sewage is released into Georgian Bay.

Andy Campbell, director of water and wastewater services for the Town of Midland, says that occasionally untreated and partially treated sewage gets released by the municipality. One discharge is located directly off the town dock, while another overflow release is at the sewage treatment plant.

“Our licences to operate from the Ministry of the Environment allows us to do those discharges. When these discharges happen, there is no violation of the law,” said Campbell. “When we have these, we have to notify the ministry, but we are not in violation of any rules.”

Campbell also notes that Midland’s treatment system deals with eight to nine million litres of sewage flow in an average day. During storms this can increase to as much as 20 million litres.

It would cost an estimated $4 million to fix the cross-connecting sewers downtown.

Jeff Lees, Penetanguishene CAO, say the town spent $28 million to renovate the Philip H. Jones Pollution Control Plant to mitigate the risk of significant events going into Georgian Bay and that they haven't released anything for a number of years.

"Any bypasses that occurred were minor third-stage partial bypasses that were at the very last stage of the treatment process and all disinfected with chlorine," said Lees.

Members of the Georgian Bay Preservation Alliance learned about this practice when it was publicized at a Midland council meeting, after 456,000 litres of sewage was discharged following an August 2017 storm.

“We have quite a few members who are permanent or seasonal residents in Georgian Bay. They wanted to know if this was a common practice and why it was a practice,” said Jon Telch, a spokesperson for the Alliance.

The group decided to look into the situation and reached out to the province for data.

Bypass and overflow information is reported by municipalities to the ministry through the Spills Action Centre and then input into a database.

While information is regularly reported to the province, Telch and his colleagues believe the public needs to be notified when a municipality discharges sewage.

“Right now, there is no form of immediate reporting…something saying: 'Hey you might not want to go swimming or canoeing today because yesterday there was a torrential rain storm and thousands of litres of sewage was dumped,' ” said Telch. “People have the right to know when these dumps take place, for how long and how much was dumped.”

In May of 2017, Bill 141 – The Sewage Bypass Reporting Act, was introduced by Sylvia Jones an MPP for Dufferin-Caledon. This Bill would require the ministry to promptly notify the public when, where and why a sewage discharge occurred and at what time the measured volume of discharge was. The bill is still in limbo at Queen’s Park, as Jones was unable to get it passed before the recent provincial election.

As for the impact to the local water quality, there are various local organizations regularly testing and monitoring water throughout the region.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit monitors designated public beaches on a weekly basis from mid-June through Labour Day weekend.

“We take water samples from five separate points at public beaches and those samples are analyzed by our provincial laboratory for E. coli, as is it the most specific indicator of fecal pollution,” said Christina Wieder, Safe Water Program Manager with the Health Unit.

When high levels of E. coli are found, swimming advisories are put in place and swimming in not recommended.

“You could potentially get ear, eye, nose or throat infections or get a stomach illness if the water is swallowed,” said Wieder.

All swimming advisories are posted with signs at the beaches and on the health unit’s websites.

The Severn Sound Environmental Association also tests the water at 14 different locations throughout the watershed including one location near the Midland harbour and another at the bottom of Penetanguishene Bay.

“We have a partnership with the Ministry of Environment and we send our samples for nutrient testing and heavy metals. We get algae analysis done and zooplankton counted,” said Aisha Chiandet, water scientist with the SSEA.

“Overall across 2017 the water quality hadn’t changed a whole lot compared to the long-term records.”

Editor’s note: A correction was made to this story on July 8, 2018. The story stated that Penetanguishene released over $5.2 million litres of sewage into Georgian Bay in 2016. To clarify, the town did not release any raw sewage into Georgian Bay. According to Penetanguishene CAO Jeff Lees, the bypasses that occurred were third-stage partial bypasses that were in the very last stage of the treatment process and disinfected with chlorine. regrets the error.

Emrys Graefe