Durham officials against potential sewage pipeline from York region to Pickering lakefront
The province is weighing two different options – one that would see a wastewater treatment facility built in East Gwillimbury, and another that would see increased amounts of water piped over to the Duffin Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Pickering (which is operated jointly by Durham and York). Duffin Creek already handles waste from parts of York region.
The Town of Ajax argues effluent from the facility is responsible for waves of green algae washing up along the lakeshore and subsequently rotting. “We have seven kilometers of publicly-owned waterfront in Ajax,” said Mayor Shaun Collier to Durham Radio News (DRN). “We’re very proud of it, we’ve invested a lot of money in that, and to not be able to use and enjoy it because of the nuisance algae that has been washing up is an enormous problem.”
Officials have been aiming to answer the question of how to deal with anticipated population growth in York region. Over the coming years, officials are expecting 153,000 more residents and workers to join the communities of Aurora, Newmarket and East Gwillimbury. If an adequate sewage system isn’t built in time, York region argues this could put further development to a halt and jeopardize that “growth.”
For years, York has been proposing a project called “Upper York Sewage Solutions.” This would involve the construction of a treatment facility along Lake Simcoe, treating wastewater from East Gwillimbury and parts of Newmarket and Aurora.
“Nearly $100 million has been spent on the project to date, including land acquisition and design advancement,” said Mike Rabeau, director of capital planning and delivery for environmental services at York region, in a statement to DRN. “This includes more than $25-million on the Environmental Assessment alone. This is the most expensive EA in the Region’s history, reflecting the significant level of review, technical and environmental work and consultation completed.” According to Rabeau, the project has a budget of $638.6-million.
“They’ve spent a lot of money and time to conduct that environmental assessment,” said John Presta, director of environmental services for Durham region, to DRN. “That’s their preferred option. [Durham council] supports that.”
If built, it would send up to 40-million litres of treated water into Lake Simcoe per day.
However, then-Environment Minister Jeff Yurek wrote to York region in July 2020, saying he had instructed his staff to re-examine all previous options. “This may result in a return to the southern route connecting with the Duffin Creek Water Pollution Control Plant,” he wrote. “Staff from my ministry as well as from the Ministry of Transportation have had some productive conversations on a potential southern route as an alternative. It is also understood that to enable and expedite this alternative, legislation may be necessary as the normal process may take too long for an in-service date of 2026.”
According to a document provided by York region, officials from Durham were notified in October that Queen’s Park was leaning toward the Lake Ontario alternative.
Collier notes that while he doesn’t know the province’s reasoning, he has his suspicions. “My personal feeling is it’s political and there’s pressure being put on by the MPPs up in the Lake Simcoe/York area,” posits Collier. “They just don’t want it there.”
Duffin Creek is no stranger to York’s sewage. In fact, it already handles most of the region’s sewage. The facility handles sewage from about 80 per cent of York region, as well as the entireties of Pickering and Ajax.
To route the sewage over to Duffin Creek could add up to 40-million litres to the more than 320-million litres it already handles per day (based on a one-year rolling average).
“Who’s paying to twin the big pipe and bring the sewage down here?” asks Collier. “That question has been asked by us and the region many times but has not been answered.”
“It would be a Region of York project,” says John Presta. “It’s in the order of 800-million to 1-billion dollars for them to divert sewage down to Duffin Creek.” While this indicates the Lake Ontario option could prove more costly to York region, Presta describes his estimate as merely a “high-level conceptual.”
“The Ontario government has not provided any further information related to other options and costs,” noted Rabeau in a statement. “The estimate provided is a high level, unverified estimate of what this option might cost.”
Both options date back to an environmental assessment done around 2004, and have been weighed over the years by successive provincial governments. The latest delay was proposed on June 3, when outgoing Environment Minister Jeff Yurek tabled Bill 306 – the “York Region Wastewater Act.”
If passed, the bill would suspend a decision by the minister on York region’s proposal. “Many years have passed since this environmental assessment began and 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 waste water servicing for upper York,” said Yurek. “[This act] would allow time for our government to establish an expert panel to provide advice on options to address waste water servicing capacity and the needs of York region.”
The panel would include land use planners, experts on infrastructure and representatives of nearby Indigenous groups.
On their part, York region has been touting the proposed cleanliness of the Lake Simcoe option. Some of the water would wind up in the East Holland River and flow into Lake Simcoe. The rest would be taken away and used for irrigation on farmland.
They argue the wastewater would be treated so thoroughly that it would ultimately be cleaner than the water currently in the watershed. As well, there would be a side program, aiming to offset any phosphorus flowing from the facility into the watershed.
Meanwhile, residents of Durham have been skeptical of Lake Ontario’s ability to handle treated sewage. The debate over the causes of the lake’s yearly algal blooms has been long-running.