In depth: septic fields explained
By Lisa Harrison, Contributing writer
(The Highlander News, Thursday Aug.27, 2015, page 7)
With county-wide and provincial measures in place to protect our water sources, Highlands residents and visitors could expect to feel confident about the future health of our more than 600 lakes and numerous wetlands.
And yet a decades-old practice of spreading sewage on fields continues in the county and across Ontario.
Field spreading, or land application, generally occurs in two formats. The most well-known is the application of biosolids, or sludge, onto farmers’ fields as agricultural fertilizer. Biosolids are what remain after raw sewage has been treated with chemicals in municipal wastewater treatment plants to remove pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, and the water content has been returned to the water source. This practice is sanctioned by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Farming (OMAFRA) as a means to add “valuable” nutrients (chemicals and minerals) back into the soil.
The second format is the application of raw, untreated sewage onto fields, whether for agricultural purposes or not. In rural communities this is often the main option for disposing of septic system waste, which is known as septage once it leaves the septic tank.
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Farming works closely with the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) to administer both practices under the Nutrient Management Act. A Biosolids Utilization Committee (BUC) advises both ministries with support from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and from agricultural and industrial organizations, municipalities and service industries. These include the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) and the Ontario Association of Sewage Industry Services (OASIS).
In the Highlands, Minden Hills and Dysart et al manage sewer systems and sewage treatment plants for central areas. Remaining property owners use septic systems. Algonquin Highlands operates a fee-based septage treatment lagoon and Highlands East provides a septage trench at no charge, but these options don’t have enough capacity to absorb all available septic system waste.
This leaves all four municipalities to rely on field spreading for septage disposal.
Provincially, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) works as an independent officer to monitor and report annually on the government’s compliance with the Environmental Bill of Rights.
The ECO’s 2000-01 annual report advised that untreated septage is likely to have much higher concentrations of live pathogens such as bacteria and viruses than does municipal sewage sludge.
This lack of treatment also means that medication residues and disinfectant chemicals may also be present in septage.
Locally, organizations such as the Coalition of Haliburton Property Owners’ Associations (CHA), which represents 50 lake associations on 100 lakes, are working to help property owners maintain healthy septic systems and to monitor lake health.
All four municipalities provide septic installation inspections, and are either developing or investigating formal septic re-inspection programs.
However, it appears municipalities have no real jurisdiction over field spreading. The MOECC is not required to notify property owners or municipalities when field spreading permits are requested or granted. Algonquin Highlands recently obtained a legal opinion regarding a current field spreading site application, in which the township was advised not to pursue a request for zoning and official plan amendments due to a recent, negative Ontario Municipal Board ruling.
As a result of residents’ concerns over the Algonquin Highlands site application, groups such as the Maple, Beech and Cameron Lakes Area Property Owners’ Association (MBC) have begun investigating alternative methods of septage disposal.
Their president, Andy Muirhead, contacted the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA) for support on Aug. 10, and later received permission from FOCA executive director Terry Rees to release his response.
Rees wrote in part that the MOECC has in the past asserted that it is “committed to a phase-out of land application of all untreated septage”, although Rees said this has been deemed impractical “…based on not enough capacity at municipal treatment plants to meet demand, and lack of information about suitable treatment technologies for septage.”
Having been “intimately involved” with development of the Trent Conservation Coalition Source Protection Plan, which includes the Haliburton County watershed, Rees said the source water protection approach “…deals very peripherally with rural water issues, and almost not at all with anything beyond health issues related to municipal water systems.”
So what options are available to concerned citizens?
Rees advised that municipalities, other provincial Planning Act approval authorities, developers and haulers working together can develop municipal septage plans and determine the amount of septage generated, the number of septage treatment facilities available, and septage management solutions.
For the MBC’s part, Muirhead has released an information paper called “The Next Septic Issue: Where Does It All Go and What Do We Do About It?”
In it Muirhead recommends pressuring provincial authorities “…not only to make the application process for septic disposal sites more open and responsive to all our concerns, but to make it easier for our municipal governments to provide safer, better monitored sites with the capacity to receive and treat the wastes we produce.”