Georgia Strait Alliance is the only citizens' group focused on protecting the marine environment in and around the whole Strait of Georgia – Canada's most at-risk natural environment, and the place where 70% of British Columbians live, work and play. We are committed to a future for our region that includes clean water and air, healthy wild salmon runs, rich marine life and natural areas, and sustainable communities.

June 25, 2013

Secondary Treatment of Wastewater: is it Good Enough?

Hi everyone, hope you all enjoyed a great semi-rainy weekend! I spent the weekend working alone at two Farmers' Markets, Saturday in Errington and Sunday in Cedar. Despite the less-than-ideal weather, I was amazed at how many people dropped by, and leaving the kids' activities in the car meant I was able to focus more on having some in-depth conversations with interested people. And boy, did I have some good conversations! I talked with one man for almost an hour about various conservation issues we’re working on. He supported the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline for economic reasons (but thought we should refine the oil here instead of sending it overseas to be refined, thereby further increasing our economy). His opinion was that there are many more immediate things to be worried about in the Georgia Strait. His primary concern, which we spent most of our time talking about, was sewage treatment.

Canada has always been way behind in their sewage treatment regulations. It was only last
Iona WWTP in Richmond (Photo by Georgia Strait Alliance)
year that the Federal Government finally made it mandatory to upgrade sewage treatment to the secondary level in Canada (except for small northern communities). Before that, many plants were only employing primary wastewater treatment, and were as a result likely in violation of the Fisheries Act's section which does not allow the discharge of deleterious (dangerous) substances into fish bearing waters. Wastewater, the stuff that is dumped down our toilets, sinks, and bathtubs as well as the water that drains out of our washing machines, dishwashers, and storm drains, now needs to be treated at the secondary level before it is reintroduced to the environment. Plants have been given until 2020, 2030, or 2040 to make the necessary upgrades to their systems, depending on the facility's risk (high, medium, or low, respectively). All wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) perform preliminary wastewater treatment or screening, or removing the “lumps.” In most plants today, the wastewater is left to settle, so heavy things will sink and can be removed, while liquids such as cooking oils (which are less dense than water) will rest on top and can be skimmed off. This is primary treatment, and the collected “sludge” can be processed to extract energy that can be used to offset local fossil fuel use. For all WWTPs in Canada, secondary treatment is now a mandatory upgrade. This is done mostly by bacteria and other micro-organisms, which break down 85-90% of the dissolved and suspended solids, including most pathogens, toxic chemicals such as pesticides, and heavy metals. The bacteria are then removed with the sludge they produce and the wastewater is either released back to the environment or further treated. Tertiary treatment, only used in a few cities such as Calgary (which receives an A+ on the 2004 National Sewage Report Card), removes select substances such as ammonia, phosphorous, nitrogen, and heavy metals to a further degree using advanced filtration methods, UV sterilization, and reverse osmosis.
Photo by Georgia Strait Alliance
As per the sewage treatment upgrades required for all WWTPs Canada-wide, the CRD (Victoria) and Lions Gate (in North Vancouver) WWTPs must be upgraded to perform secondary wastewater treatment by 2020, and the Iona plant (in Richmond) must perform these changes by 2030. Well that's great, but why has it taken so long? It’s unfortunate that for decades BC lagged behind the rest of the provinces in moving its communities to secondary treatment. Though they showed leadership in ordering Victoria to treat its sewage in 2006, it’s the federal laws that have moved BC forward. In Saskatchewan, secondary treatment has been the law for all WWTPs since 2002. In fact, 94% of the sewered population in the Prairies and Ontario had secondary or tertiary treatment in 1999. Only 63% of BC’s population did at that time. Victoria remains the only treatment plant in Canada to not even perform primary wastewater treatment, but will thankfully be upgraded to secondary treatment in the near future. So why has it taken BC so long to upgrade their prehistoric WWTPs? During our conversation, we hypothesized that it may simply be because residents of the mid-country provinces can physically see the effects of insufficient wastewater treatment. Treated wastewater goes directly into Canada’s rivers and lakes, almost all of which are accessible. Meanwhile, British Columbia's WWTPs dump their wastewater into the surrounding ocean and other large bodies of water, where a lot of the waste can sink to depths that only recreational divers can see, or can be carried off by oceanic currents and tides to less populated areas. Besides, the ocean is a vast body of water that couldn't possibly be affected by something so small in comparison. Could it?

I don’t even have the heart to go into the details of what this sewage does to the environment and the organisms that have the misfortune of living near the outfalls. There are documents online such as the National Sewage Report Card from 2004 and TBuck Suzuki’s “Hidden Killer” that summarize these threats thoroughly. What I will say is that while secondary treatment removes most of the dangerous compounds in wastewater, it doesn’t remove all of the hormones, toxic chemicals (like pesticides), pathogens, and heavy metals. It also doesn't remove all the organic nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, which can be a food source for photosynthetic micro-organisms and can cause massive algal blooms (creating an anoxic environment below it, a problem all its own). While it is a great minimum standard, an area as vulnerable as the Georgia Strait ecosystem deserves to be protected from these compounds, and WWTPs that dump their wastewater into this area should try to upgrade to tertiary treatment as soon as they can. All that estrogen from birth control pills that’s being flushed down toilets? It’s feminizing male fish. And BC’s resident Orca population is considered one of the most toxic animal populations on the planet because of all the hazardous substances (such as PCBs and mercury, both rather effectively removed by secondary treatment) they accumulate from the poisoned fish they eat. Sewage isn't the only source of this contamination but it's one we can stop. So even though we are making a change to improve the quality of the Strait’s water, we still can reach further to protect these waters.

It’s okay, here’s the silver lining! There are things you can do!
      - Stop or limit the use of toxic cleaning products in your house (from glass cleaner to laundry detergent to dishwasher soap), there are safer alternatives for your family and the environment.
      - Never flush old medications down the toilet, any pharmacy will take them and dispose of them properly free of charge.
      - Avoid getting oil, anti-freeze fluids, and soaps in storm drains.
      - Feminine hygiene products should never be flushed; really nothing except toilet paper and the obvious should go in your toilet. Besides, it could clog your pipes (ew.).
- Tell your friends and family about ways they can help do their part. If everyone made little changes to what went down their drains, we'd have a huge and positive result!

Have a look at the 2004 National Sewage Report Card and the Government of Canada’s new Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (careful, it’s wordy) for a ton of information about Canada’s sewage treatment methods. I hope you enjoyed my rant; hopefully Megan will write a happier blog post next week!

- Mikaela

June 21, 2013

World Oceans Day Reflection

Over the summer, we have the pleasure of having Bryan Nordley join us as our Communications Assistant.  Here, he shares with us some of his thoughts on our oceans.

Coming from the Midwest, an area devoid of oceans and marine life, I would never have guessed I would be spending World Oceans Day out on the tranquil waters of Vancouver’s English Bay on a schooner sailboat with a team of environmentalists.

Photo by Bryan Nordley 
June 8th was International World Oceans Day and in a delightful twist for me, I took part in my first Oceans Day in the country it originated in.  In 1992, the Government of Canada first proposed the idea for World Oceans Day  at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. World Oceans Day officially became recognized by United Nations General Assembly in December of 2008 as being on June 8th of each year.

This day shines a spot light and much needed attention to organizations like the Georgia Strait Alliance, who have deep commitments and compassion for the cause of marine conservation.

On a much broader horizon, World Oceans Day gives people across the globe many reasons to celebrate our vast, mysterious, and precious bodies of water. On a very basic level, Worlds Oceans Day reminds us that our oceans generate most of the oxygen we breathe, are an abundant source of food, offers us boundless wonder and recreational activities, have the potential to generate new medicines, and regulate our climate. And of course our water “provides limitless inspiration.” 

It was a strikingly relaxed experience aboard the “Passing Cloud,” sailing around English Bay on June 8th.  Besides ships looming on the Strait’s horizon, to the everyday person you would never think that that our oceans face critical threats.  It is an especially sad irony that one of the earth’s most critical climate regulators is so vulnerable to our own man made climate change. 

Photo by Bryan Nordley
Even on this pleasant trip, conversations about the environment turned to global climate change. Having the rare opportunity to chat with three professional, highly educated and active environmental scientists. I asked questions about ocean acidification and climate change to find out what professionals in the field were thinking.  My friend who joined me on the outing also asked questions related to possible scientific and man made mitigation strategies to help the oceans cope with the affects of climate change.  We talked about process like iron fertilization but the overall consensus of the discussion was that we must reduce or stop emitting greenhouse gases to help our oceans.

Another option that arose was that we too often think we can fix things with technology and the reality is we cannot depend on technology to fix or mitigate the real cause.

This seems ominous in the face of further industrialization in Russia, Asia, and the global south, and even in many parts of North America. I asked one of the environmental scientists whether he felt frustrated or discouraged about working on the political and legal side of marine environmental issues. His response was a positive one. Although he explained that change was often slow, he acknowledged that a lot of people working on the politics and legal aspects did truly care about the environment and there was a general movement to lay the framework for more conscientious policies regarding our marine ecosystems. This surprised me but it was really refreshing to hear since so much of the content that makes it into the news media, books and even in scholarly articles is more or less doom and gloom when it comes to peoples’ behavior in acting to stop things like climate change.

His thoughts on a changing consciousness regarding marine issues are reflected in the positive awareness that is also being created by declared days like Oceans Day. In 2012, around 600 events were held in 55 countries and 42 states with 180 of these events hosted at zoos, aquariums or other science related centers. Several of the events actually involved hands on experience of cleaning beaches like in Ballena National Park in Costa Rica, while Kids’ Ocean Day in California has many as 8,000 youth involved in a huge beach clean up effort.   It is events like Oceans Day that help grow the consciousness of people across the world, gaining momentum to encourage a better future for us all.  

June 18, 2013

Georgia’s Thoughts –Mermaid reflections on a weekend of festivals

After a busy weekend of travelling, talking and bean bag tossing, I Georgia the Mermaid would like to reflect on my experiences at the BC Shellfish Festival in Comox and Car Free Day in Vancouver.

Cruising along the Island Highway, and basking in the early morning sunshine, my GSA companions Megan and Mikaela (M&M) talked through their upcoming weekend agenda. Sunscreen? Check. Information brochures on Green Boating and Salmon Farming? Double Check. Oh, and that beautiful blue mermaid Georgia? “Check!” I thought.

Enjoying the sunshine with Megan
Photo by Mikaela Wilson
As Megan’s little Rav 4 pulled smoothly into Comox Marina Park (what an excellent driver she is) I was excited to see tents, tables and a gathering of people on the park’s grassy lawns –the beginnings of a day long festival! As I remember from past years, the Shellfish Festival in Comox always brings a hearty crowd, interested in sampling local oysters, salmon, and seafood sauces, but also eager to discuss environmental issues impacting the Georgia Strait. As I lounged in my lawn chair (M&M really do treat me lavishly) I heard them talk of GSA’s Green Boating and Clean Marine BC programs, responding to critical questions like “what is a more environmentally-friendly substitute to making docks from Styrofoam?” and “what are the top four ways I can improve my boating practices?” If you’re curious to learn more about such issues, I highly recommend perusing GSA's website.

Then Shellfish Day wrapped up and I had some time to rest in Mikaela’s Jeep, but the girls were off early the next morning for Car Free Day in Vancouver. I must admit I was rather fatigued at this point, and nodded off more than once to dream of the mermen suitors and mysterious kelp forests from my past ocean abode. But I persevered, and was greeted with upbeat music, and intriguing smells of deep fried meats and Mars Bars (believe it or not) as the girls set-up their display on Commercial Drive. Hundreds of vendors and non-profit organizations lined the bustling street for some car-free, care-free fun. I watched as M&M played their Marine Matching bean bag toss game with dozens of people –young and old, all eager to get a sparkly fish sticker.

Megan's cousin Hilary meets the GSA crew
Photo by Mikaela Wilson
But what most impressed me most from this thriving festival was the interest passers-by showed in our Stewards of the Strait pledges, and our Rename Georgia Contest. M&M highlighted our Exploring the Shoreline pledge, which overviews simple guidelines all residents of the Georgia Strait should follow which enjoying our exquisite ocean environments. Tips like following marked paths, and always handling sealife gently with wet hands are important reminders –even for marine experts like myself.

In closing (it’s about time I rest before our next event at Bowen Farmers Market) I would like to remind you all that our Rename Georgia Contest is free to enter and running all summer (just e-mail us your entry, with your name and contact information!) Since 1990, my GSA family has graced me with a few new coats of paint (purple was my favourite, before becoming blue) but not yet a new name. We had some excellent entries this weekend –like Aquamarine, Marina and David, but I would appreciate further suggestions. Since my figure and hair-do still look stunning after all these years (I must say) it would  be the cherry on top to have a more modern, youthful name.

Have a lovely week, and as always check our Facebook pagetweets and Events page for GSA updates!
~ ~ ~

Georgia (as interpreted by Megan)

June 11, 2013

Summer Students off to the Races

Hello everyone! Megan and Mikaela here, and we're this summer's GSA Outreach Coordinators. If you see a Georgia Strait Alliance booth at an event on Vancouver Island or in the Lower Mainland over the next few months, we'll be manning it. So come say Hi!

Our summer got off to a great start this past weekend when we helped celebrate World Ocean's Day in both Victoria and Surrey. Needless to say, we learned a lot during these initiation events, and many adventures were had. Want to hear what our experience was like? Read on...

Bright and early Saturday morning, we dropped by the office, picked up our gear, and drove from Nanaimo to Victoria in Megan's little RAV4.We were warmly welcomed at the event location in front of the Victoria Maritime Museum in Bastion Square, and our slot was already set up. Surprisingly, our first attempt at setting up the booth not only went without a hitch and in a timely fashion, but it looked great! Unfortunately, we
Courtesy of M. Spencer
showed up in shorts and light sweaters expecting the sunshine to warm us up; but someone forgot to tell the clouds, and they hung around until an hour before the event ended. Add the lack of sunshine to the permanent Victoria Harbour wind, and suffice it to say we were rather chilly most of the day (Note to self: bring clothes for ALL weather conditions!). Other than this inconvenience, the event was lots of fun! We had a few great conversations and were able to get some information out to others, focusing primarily on closed containment salmon farming and the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, and our newly designed bean-bag toss game was a hit with the kids.

We also unveiled our new promotional event of the summer: the Name our Mermaid Contest! We have decided that "Georgia," our 20-year-old mermaid mascot, needs a newer, more modern name. So for the rest of the summer we'll be accepting ideas at all our events. At the end of the summer, we'll put the names to a vote in our office, and whoever entered the winning name will win a fantastic prize! If you think you have a great name that would suit our mermaid, just drop by our table at any upcoming events and fill out an entry form. Or you're welcome to contact us by email. Please provide your full name, address, and phone number along with your entry.

Stickers: the best prize around! M. Spencer
Our Sunday event was a little further away from home. We caught the first ferry out in the morning, drove across Vancouver, Richmond, and Surrey in Mikaela's Jeep (it holds the tent in the trunk and not beside the passenger's face, very convenient), and finally reached our venue at Blackie Spit in Surrey. Now this is where the learning started. We tried to set up the tent, and it was missing a rather vital bolt (Note to self: ALWAYS bring spare parts!) so we couldn't use it. Luckily, another vendor brought an extra tent, so we set
Our new bean-bag game! M. Spencer
it up instead... Right on time. No sooner was it up than the skies opened and a torrential downpour drenched anyone silly enough to stay out in it (Note to self: pack an umbrella!). The squall quickly passed, we got the rest of the booth set up, and we were underway just as the sunshine started to show its face. Then the wind picked up. First our display board went flying (Note to self: keep an eye on wind direction!), then a random gust sent our whole TENT flying (Note to self: tie down your tent!). It's okay, we caught it. Soon we had everything held down and secured, and we were able to fully enjoy this great event. There were thousands of people over the course of the day, most of them families with young children, so our bean-bag toss was in use almost constantly. In addition to this, we had some great talks about the various conservation efforts the GSA is working on right now, and got a bunch of name suggestions for our mermaid.

We're also intensely focusing on our Stewards of the Strait program this summer. Are you an active diver? Do you love to kayak along the Sunshine coast? Or maybe you just like walking along the beach and enjoying nature's beauty? We'll be collecting pledges all summer by people like you who want to do their own little part to help preserve our amazing Georgia Strait. All you need to do is read what the pledge entitles, and if you think you can follow those guidelines, you can sign the pledge. You can choose just one pledge, or all eight! The GSA currently has pledges for the following recreational activities:
     - Exploring the Shoreline              - Boating              - Kayaking              - Diving              - Fishing
     - Bird Watching              - Whale and Wildlife Watching              - Waterfront Living

I think we had a really successful first weekend, stay tuned for next weekend's summary: we're heading to the BC Shellfish Festival in Comox on Saturday, and back to Vancouver for DriveFest 2013 on Sunday. Hope to see you there! You can also check out our events page for a little more information about events we'll be attending in the coming weeks. We'll try to keep it updated!

- Mikaela

June 7, 2013

Filmmakers tell ocean tales worth seeing

I’m a word person, always have been.  Give me a pen (or a laptop) and stories and ideas start to flow. Give me a paint brush or a video camera and, well, the results can be what people call “interesting”!

So it’s not surprising that in my work as an environmental advocate and educator, when it comes to connecting and touching people, words have always been my stock and trade.  Whether spoken or written, I put words together to create the stories that I hope will touch people.

That is why I’m so blow over by the ability of documentary filmmakers to tell their stories by bringing together images, sound and words, and to evoke through those stories laughter, tears and appreciation for something we might never of have seen in real life. 

My work at the Georgia Strait Alliance tells you I have a love for oceans, so that shows why I’m so excited to once again be attending the Vancouver Festival of Ocean Films.  Looking back on last year, I still remember laughing to tears through “Paddle to Seattle: Journey Through the Inside Passage” but still being touched by the real world dangers this duo faced in their travels.  I felt the eerie familiarity of a fight to stop a pipeline in Ireland in “The Pipe”, and lost myself in the wild exuberance of surfers trying to ride one of the world’s most dangerous waves in “The Ultimate Wave Tahiti”.

This year the films look to be as interesting and diverse as ever.  The ones I’m particularly looking forward to seeing are: “Stand” a journey into the Great Bear Rainforest, a place I’ve never been; “The Island President” the story of political leadership in light of climate change for a small island community; and “The Big Fix” a damning look at the human causes behind the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Vancouver Festival of Ocean Films is telling entertaining and important stories with pictures, and if you’ve ever lost yourself in a shoreline walk, paddled the intertidal in your kayak, or just love living near the waters that are so important to our quality of life in this region, I look forward to seeing you at this year’s Festival. Tickets are on sale for all 3 screenings this weekend – check out what’s playing and lose yourself in a great story!

June 4, 2013

Talking transition with tanker owners

As a campaigner who spends most of my time speaking out about the risks of shipping tar sands oil through the Georgia Strait, I found myself in a somewhat unusual position last week: standing in front of a roomful of tanker owners and port managers, talking about a future beyond oil.

Photo: Green Marine / Port Metro Vancouver
Although it wasn't exactly an easy sell, the crowd was more receptive than you might think. I was presenting at the annual conference of Green Marine, an industry-led program under which ports, terminals and shipowners attempt to measure and reduce the environmental impact of their operations in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions, waste management and oil spill prevention.

In media debates about increasing tanker traffic off BC’s coast, the shipping industry often takes the position that they are unfairly targeted. The sentiment is: ‘we don’t extract the oil or make the laws that govern it – we just carry it’. In my presentation, I suggested that this position wasn't going to fly anymore in BC – not when what the ships are carrying is oil, which is culturally and politically, and not just environmentally, toxic. The shipping industry is now under the microscope every day, not just when there is an incident or a spill. At least at the moment in BC, the shipping industry’s reputation is bound up with the reputation of the oil industry’s; and that reputation is not being helped by failing to acknowledge that ship owners and ports are more than innocent bystanders in the life cycle of oil.

So while we need to acknowledge that tanker safety and oil spill prevention have come a long way since the days of the Exxon Valdez, and that many members of Green Marine are working hard to reduce the direct impacts of their operations, true environmental leadership means taking into account the impacts of the products you carry. There is no doubt that the task of measuring and assessing these impacts is technically complex, and that mitigating them raises big questions about the future of the shipping industry in a carbon constrained world. They are certainly questions that are beyond the scope of a program like Green Marine in its current format – but the climate challenge demands that they be asked.

It also demands that we work together across traditional divides, which is why Georgia Strait Alliance has decided to become a supporter of Green Marine. Although we will encourage the program to raise the bar in how it defines sustainability and environmental leadership, we also need to acknowledge that many of its members are making genuine efforts to reduce their environmental footprint, and working with them to push the envelope is more effective than washing our hands of an initiative just because it doesn't yet go far enough. There are always tensions when strange bedfellows come together – but these can be productive, and building unusual alliances to find solutions is what Georgia Strait Alliance is all about.