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York Region torn on whether to stand by or abandon sewage treatment project

After more than a decade, there is no concrete plan in place for the plant that Newmarket needs before running out of capacity within the next four to five years
Jan. 18, 2021
Alan S. Hale

York Regional council is split between continuing to push for a new sewage treatment plant in East Gwillimbury that would provide much needed capacity for Newmarket and neighbouring communities, or to go along with the province's new direction to abandon the plan.

The $715-million Upper Canada Sewage Solutions project was proposed more than a decade ago. Its environmental assessment was completed in 2014, and it has been waiting for the green light from the province ever since.

But it has also faced fierce opposition from the Chippewas of the Georgina First Nation, who are concerned about its impact on Lake Simcoe. The Chippewas undertook their own environmental assessment of the project, which was completed at the end of June.

Without the treatment plant, Newmarket will run out of sewer capacity, which will bring all new development in the community to a halt within the next four to five year.

Although York Region staff determined the Chippewas environmental assessment contained no new information that would change approval of the plant, soon after Environment Minister Jeff Yurek sent a letter saying that the government is now considering building a new southern trunk sewer to transport wastewater to the existing Duffin Creek treatment plant in Pickering.

Having already spent $100 million toward the treatment plant, York Region has stood by the project as its preferred option. But now, regional council must decide if it will maintain that position or go along with the new direction.

York Region Chair and CEO Wayne Emmerson argued the region has put in too much work, time and money to yield to the new plan.

"With all due respect, we have gone down this route with the province of Ontario, we spent $100 million," Emmerson said at a council meeting Jan. 14.

"The environmental assessment (for the new sewage plant) is still on the books and has not been cancelled, so I would ask the council to stay the course because we need to continue on until the province makes that decision (to officially cancel the project.)"

"I don't want to jeopardize any other plants that may go into Lake Simcoe by turning this one down."

Georgina Regional Councillor Rob Grossi replied that he understood those frustrations but argued it was clear the government had changed its mind, so it would be best for York Region to get on board. Besides, he said, using the Duffin Creek treatment plant is simply the better option.

"If the province has indicated to us that they want us to change directions ... then let's just get on with it," said Grossi.

"The Upper Canada Sewage Solutions project was ill-timed and wasn't really a solution. It was an option put forward by a government at the time that would take 40 million litres of treated sewage and putting it into a thimble (Lake Simcoe). As compared to the Duffin Creek facility, which drains into an Olympic-sized swimming pool (Lake Ontario)."

The Town of Georgina council unanimously passed a resolution in December asking for the Upper York Sewage Solution plant to be cancelled and for municipalities to be reimbursed for their expenses on the project.

Grossi said that the government's change of direction on the project amounts to a tacit admission that it was a bad idea to begin with, and that would make the argument for reimbursement much easier. Emmerson was not so sure.

"I'm not sure they've admitted they were wrong, just that they want to consider an alternate solution," said Emmerson.

As for the other communities impacted, East Gwillimbury passed a motion in December, calling on the government to advance either option as quickly as possible.

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor has said much the same thing, saying he just wants to want something to be in place, so the town doesn't run out of sewer capacity in 10 years.

"I'm not sure either of these approaches can be completed in that amount of time," he told NewmarketToday last November.

Durham Region, which co-owns the Duffin Creek Plant with York Region, passed its own resolution in December calling on York Region to reaffirm its support for a separate plant.

No decision was made by regional council on Thursday, the issue will return to council in two weeks.