Erin receives provincial approval for wastewater system

ERIN – After 13 years of emotional debate, studies of the West Credit River and unexplained delays, the Town of Erin has received unconditional provincial approval to develop a wastewater system.

The town can now proceed with official plan revisions, a growth management strategy and engineering work on a system that could cost $118 million and allow the urban population to triple to 14,500 when fully complete.

However, the town must convince senior levels of government to pay the bulk of the costs.

Even with sufficient funding and no further delays, construction of sewers and a treatment plant is not expected to start until at least 2023.

The Wastewater Environmental Assessment (EA) was mandated in 2006, effectively suspending all subdivision construction until Erin could find a way to get its urban residents off private septic systems.

The EA actually started in 2009 and was completed in 2018 at a cost of more than $2 million, but was delayed for 15 months while the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks reviewed appeals from area citizens.

On Aug. 30, the town was notified that environment minister Jeff Yurek has approved the EA without imposing any changes or requirements for further study.

The ministry, along with Credit Valley Conservation, had closely monitored and set the standards for each phase of the study.

“I am thrilled that the minister is satisfied with the completed assessment,” said Mayor Allan Alls.

He has promised that the system will not be built unless it is affordable for existing residents, and that rural residents (who won’t get the service) will not have to pay for construction.

“As we continue towards the next phase of our project, council remains dedicated to engaging with residents on ways to get involved,” said Alls.

Ann Seymour of Belfountain, one of the official objectors to the EA, said opponents would not give up.

“We will be pursuing our work to halt this wastewater treatment plant,” said Seymour, who has the West Credit River running through her property.

The town must decide which lands should be developed first and which areas of existing homes and businesses will receive servicing first.

In order to service Hillsburgh, a sewer main would be required along the Elora-Cataract Trailway to move wastewater to a treatment plant just east of Erin village.

Among the three appeals that triggered the 15-month review of the EA, is one from environmental activist Liz Armstrong, who argued the system was being built with far too great a capacity for the projected population.

She wants a competitive design-build process to lower the overall cost, and argued that there should have been study of a broader range of options, including clusters of smaller processing systems that could discharge to either soil or surface water.

The other appeals, from the Belfountain Community Organization (BCO) and Seymour, expressed concern about a lack of consultation with Belfountain, considering it is just downstream of the discharge point of the treatment plant, near Winston Churchill Boulevard. They were hoping Erin could remain on private septic systems.

A Belfountain-based petition opposing an Erin wastewater system was signed by more than 4,500 people as of June. Its slogan was, “Cut the crap, keep the Credit”.

Opponents argued that even if the effluent meets Ontario government standards, there would still be harm to fish and risk to humans from the flow of salt, ammonia, endocrine disrupters, estrogen-based compounds, medications and micro-fibres that the plant would not be able to remove.

Alls, however, said the population and business growth that a wastewater system will make possible is “good news for almost everybody – we won’t have to turn down businesses that want to move here.”

Town council has been unanimous in supporting moderate growth, contending that it will avoid the risk of a school closure in Hillsburgh, provide customers for local businesses, ease the current shortage of local labour, provide more affordable housing choices for young families and seniors, and reduce the percentage of property taxes paid by homeowners (now about 90%), shifting more of the burden towards industrial and commercial taxes.

“I’m happy to see it going ahead,” said county councillor Jeff Duncan, who was on town council when CVC forced the town to embark on the EA.

He said that between 2006 and 2009, “there wasn’t a major political push” among senior staff and councillors to get the project started, with a long time spent in approving  terms of the study and hiring a consultant.

A wastewater system will “breathe some life into downtown,” Duncan said.

Many downtown businesses rely on holding tanks that require regular pump-outs, since there is no room for regular septic beds.

Business growth resulting from wastewater service will benefit county tax revenue, Duncan noted.

“This is an absolutely huge step in the town being able to set the conditions to reverse stagnation and decreasing population growth over the last decade and a half, provide housing options like small-lot single detached homes, townhomes, semi-detached units, small condos and apartment developments,” said Duncan.

He also says it will be an “environmental win” to get households away from private septic systems.

At public meetings throughout the EA process, residents have been concerned about Erin maintaining its small-town atmosphere.

Supporters of the wastewater plan argue that Erin can still have its charm with a larger population.

“We’re still going to be a small town surrounded by bigger ones,” said Duncan.

The first section of the EA was the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) conducted by B.M. Ross, which was completed in 2014.

It set the new urban population at 6,000, just a bit higher than the current 4,500 (Erin village and Hillsburgh combined).

One element of the SSMP was the intention to maintain phosphorus levels in the effluent at .15 mg/L.

The next phase of more detailed study was done by Ainley Group. Its new proposal was to use the best available technology to reduce phosphorus in the effluent to .046 mg/L, about one third of the previous level.

Lowering the amount of phosphorus per litre meant that a much higher volume of effluent could be discharged, a key factor in allowing the population limit to rise from 6,000 to 14,500.

The target was set at .024 mg/L once the effluent is dispersed in the river, below the provincial limit of .03 mg/L.

Also supporting the higher population limit was a new study that found slightly higher water flow in the river during dry periods, allowing it to better absorb effluent.

Ainley also reduced the estimate of how much wastewater each household would produce. The SSMP had set the amount at 435 litres per person daily, which Ainley considered very high. The new figure is 290 litres per person daily, which some critics say is still too high.

Ainley also included an additional allowance of 90 litres per person per day for possible “infiltration” – the water that often leaks into traditional gravity sewers, increasing the volume that a treatment plant must handle.

Ainley says the extra capacity is an industry standard intended to offset loss of efficiency as the system ages over an 80-year lifecycle and to provide for extra growth if the town chooses to allow it.

Lower water use per household, and possible reduction or elimination of infiltration, would both mean that more people could be on the system.

Another factor in the projection of how many people the system will handle is that a few urban neighbourhoods with large lots and newer septic systems are to be initially excluded from sewer service.

These residents would not have to contribute directly to the construction costs.