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The politics of growth: Upper York Sewage Solutions stuck in perpetual limbo

What you need to know about the $715M project York Region has fought to make happen for a decade; ' of the obvious reasons for a delay would be to wait till an election,' Newmarket mayor says
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The Upper York Sewage Solutions $715-million project remains in limbo and a problem for both provincial and municipal level governments.

The massive sewage facility proposed by York Region has been in the works since 2008 but is stalled with successive provincial governments refusing to approve — or reject — a 2014 environmental assessment. The provincial government is taking submissions on a proposed bill stating it will not decide on the assessment, with plans to convene a new expert panel to review the situation.

There is little certainty on what comes next — or when it will. The province has proposed the alternative of using the existing plant in Pickering, but that has not made much progress. But Newmarket Mayor John Taylor said he believes the province is avoiding a call on a controversial project with an election next year. 

“This looks like a delay, and one of the obvious reasons for a delay would be to wait till an election,” Taylor said. “There’s resistance in both directions, and it’s political. It’s not a science-based issue.” 

Increased sewage capacity is needed for the region to handle its growth projections - the province estimates York Region will expand to nearly double its population by 2051. York Region has already put $100 million toward the project 

Ontario Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks Jeff Yurek introduced the bill and said a panel is needed, given the number of years since the environmental assessment.

“This government wants to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information on the environmental, social, and financial impacts of alternatives to provide wastewater services appropriately,” Yurek said in the Ontario Legislature June 3. 

The Upper York Sewage Solutions project has garnered years-long opposition. Area municipalities, the Chippewas of Georgina Island, and environmental organizations like the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, have all questioned the Upper York solution, concerned about the impact it could have on Lake Simcoe. A petition asking the government to reject the proposal garnered more than 35,000 signatures. 

Objections range from the environmental assessment only lasting one year without a long-term view, the impact of personal care products, not incorporating traditional knowledge from the Georgina Island First Nation, and the impacts on the watershed health from the growth to come.

“In this time of truth and reconciliation, we will continue to raise our voices and concerns in solidarity to speak for the lands, waters and all our relations,” the nation stated in a 2017 statement, regarding all industrial and urban growth activities proposed in the watershed. 

The province has proposed an alternative — expand the lines to a plant at Duffin Creek jointly operated by York and Durham regions. The plant already handles some York Region sewage.

Durham Region prefers the Upper York Sewage Solutions model. Durham’s director of environmental services John Presta said the province’s alternative could theoretically work, but it is undeveloped.

“It has to be noted there hasn’t been any refined planning on how that’s going to get done, or engineering to look at some of the impacts bringing down a pipe to transfer sewage,” Presta said. “It appears from a conceptual level, that it’s going to be more expensive.”

Going south is also no escape from environmental concerns. The Duffin Creek plant garnered controversy in 2014 when an Ajax-commissioned study linked it to an algae problem in the waterfront. The province ordered the regions to do a phosphorus reduction study, eventually leading to an enhanced secondary treatment process costing about $47 million over 25 years. 

Presta said waste treatment plants, including Duffin Creek, ensure the water discharge is clean. But he said misconceptions exist, and the idea of more sewage going into the plant is garnering concern in the area.

“It’s already resurfaced, based on the local stakeholders,” Presa said. “That (concern) has not gone away.”

Rescue Lake Simcoe Coaliton executive director Claire Malcomson said at issue is how wastewater plants add phosphorus to Lake Simcoe, associated with decreased water quality and algae blooms. The province’s Lake Simcoe Protection Plan calls for phosphorus reductions in the lake, but Malcomson said offsets included in the Upper York project are not proven enough.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the offsets that are proposed to make this project okay for Lake Simcoe’s water quality,” Malcolmson said.

Regardless of how, York Region needs more sewage capacity based on growth trends. Urban planner Paul Bottomley said they projected to have the plant in place already, but now they expect it might not be built until 2028. Though there is enough capacity to handle projects for the next few years, Bottomley said there could be a point where housing developments have to stop in the northern York Region without more capacity coming in.

For some, that might not seem like a bad thing, as large new housing developments in Newmarket often attract concerns. But Taylor said a moderate amount of growth is necessary.

“Most people don’t like growth because it brings traffic and construction headaches,” Taylor said. “Growth also brings the Stronach Regional Cancer Centre, the Riverwalk Commons, the Magna Centre. That’s what growth brings. It brings wonderful amenities and options I know the town loves.” 

Newmarket is projected to maintain its current rate of growth, around one per cent per year, Taylor said. It is projected to expand by about 20,000 to 110,000 people by 2051, the slowest rate in the region. 

Taylor said though it can be hard to keep up with too much growth, a moderate amount of growth is healthy. He noted it is also important for housing prices.

“Look at municipalities with negative growth rates. Their infrastructure is crumbling, they have no new amenities and the local economy and local small business community is struggling,” he said. “Having low and manageable growth is exactly where we need to be in the GTA.”

But the opposition has remained steadfast to the Upper York Sewage Solutions. The province has assured the expert panel it is convening would include Indigenous consultation. 

Malcolmson said the province’s growth planning is taking into account water impacts too late in the process. Rather than solve wastewater capacity and water impacts after deciding on growth targets, Malcolmson argues there needs to be consideration sooner — and there is a lack of evidence Lake Simcoe can handle the growth to come.

“We really need to have demonstrated that receiving bodies of water can handle approved growth, before the growth is approved,” she said.

York Region has said the project would be leading edge, ensuring the water discharge is clean. Taylor said when he toured a temporary micro facility built to pilot the plan, he was convinced of the technology.

Taylor said York has had many meetings with the Chippewas of Georgina Island, who remain opposed.

“I respect their position,” Taylor said. “There’s going to be differences of opinion and respectful differences of opinion. My opinion is this clearly demonstrated that this is a state-of-the-art, best practice for wastewater treatment.”

Regardless of location, discharge from sewage treatment plants can attract controversy. Taylor said York needs to consider how it is communicating about it.

“We need to ask ourselves: are we communicating clearly? We believe we have for years, putting information out there,” Taylor said. “It’s been a long, frustrating process.”