Frustration mounts as Yurek dithers on solving sewage crisis in York Region

By Alan S. Hale June 8, 2021

The mayors of Newmarket and East Gwillimbury are “extremely disappointed” with Bill 306, the York Region Wastewater Act — new government legislation that will delay a long-awaited decision on how to solve the sewage capacity crisis in York Region.

The proposed bill, tabled by Environment Minister Jeff Yurek during the final hour of the legislature’s spring session last Thursday, “came right out of left field,” said East Gwillimbury Mayor Virginia Hackson. No press release accompanied the legislation.

Bill 306 suspends any ministerial decision on York Region’s 2014 proposal to build a $715-million sewage treatment plant in East Gwillimbury that outflows into Lake Simcoe and establishes a panel of experts to weigh the plan against a competing option — construction of another sewer pipe to transport excess waste to the existing Duffin Creek treatment plant near Ajax, which outflows into Lake Ontario.

Newmarket and East Gwillimbury are quickly running out of sewer capacity due to explosive growth over the past few decades, but successive Ontario governments have pondered a solution for more than 10 years.

Hackson told Queen’s Park Today her community’s 40-year-old open-air sewage lagoons are already at full capacity, and the town can’t afford to hold out for the province to make up its mind.

“We have been waiting a long time with a process we thought was moving forward, assuming East Gwillimbury would be well-looked after for our future growth,” Hackson said in a phone interview. “It’s unacceptable in this day and age to have open sewage lagoons in a community in the GTA.”

Motivations of the bill are suspect: critics
To Newmarket Mayor John Taylor, Bill 306 is a clear attempt to continue stalling a controversial decision that is sure to anger people ahead of a risky election for the PCs.

“They clearly intend to decide after the next political election, that’s how I read it,” said Taylor.

Yurek says Bill 306 is not about delaying a decision but making the right one.

“Protecting Ontario’s water resources, now and in the future, is a top priority for our government — but any changes to that system need to be based on the most current and accurate information,” said Yurek in a statement to Queen’s Park Today.

“That is why the province is proposing legislation that would put a hold on the current application from York Region to expand its sewage servicing capacity using infrastructure going to Lake Simcoe and establishing an Expert Advisory Panel to provide us with recommendations on a path forward.”

But that explanation doesn’t hold much water with community leaders, with Hackson calling Yurek’s statement “a bit of a stretch.”

Even the Chippewas of the Georgina Island First Nation, which steadfastly opposed the Lake Simcoe sewage plant option on environmental grounds, agrees the bill is likely self-serving.

“We do see this as just a way that the province is protecting themselves,” said Chippewas environmental coordinator Brandon Stiles. “We really see this bill as some sort of protection for them to delay a decision.”

While Mayor Taylor favours a new sewage treatment plant in East Gwillimbury, he said he just wants a decision made one way or the other — and soon.

The Newmarket mayor estimates his community has three to five years before it runs out of sewer capacity and all new construction in the town must be brought to a halt — a disaster that would exacerbate already skyrocketing housing prices by limiting new supply.

“Frankly, people can barely afford to live in Aurora, Newmarket and East Gwillimbury now, and no new housing for five to 10 years is going to make it completely out of reach of ordinary residents,” said Taylor. “I can’t imagine the impact on housing prices that zero new supply would have.”

Durham doesn’t want the sewage dump
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Durham Region are fiercely opposed to the alternate plan, which includes twinning a southbound sewer to the existing Duffin Creek treatment plant in Pickering.

Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier told Queen’s Park Today that move would accelerate the need to upgrade the plant, while Durham Region’s director of environmental services John Presta noted building the sewer to bring the waste down south also harbours its own environmental risks, such as disturbing the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine.

However, Collier hopes Bill 306’s creation of an expert panel means the province isn’t likely to just “ram through” the southbound sewer option as he and others had feared when it was first proposed by Yurek last summer.

The Ajax mayor previously told the Star he believed political pressure from PC cabinet ministers in York Region was the impetus for abandoning York’s original proposal, which has already been funded to the tune of $100 million.