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THE NORTH | Arctic pollution

Arctic 'grey water' pollution to double by 2035

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, August 21, 2018, 4:35 PM - Though known as a desolate, mostly impassable wilderness, Canada's Arctic waters are gradually becoming more open to ship traffic as the world warms. But that openness is coming with a rising number of unwanted drawbacks.

A new report released by WWF-Canada earlier this month says as ship traffic rises, so does the discharge of untreated 'grey water' -- water used for washing, laundry, cooking and other functions that can't be recycled and is usually dumped into the sea, harming local ecosystems and potentially threatening regional food security. 

WWF-Canada says grey water discharge is set to double by 2035, and current rules in Canada's Arctic are too lax.

Melissa Nacke, WWF-Canada's Arctic shipping and marine conservation specialist, told The Weather Network that Canada's regulations for pollution in the region date back to 1972. While strict at the time, they do not mention grey water, which is regulated below the 60th parallel in Canadian waters, but not above it. 

Nacke says the current rules amount to a "zero discharge" regime, but without any practical enforcement, and WWF-Canada's report notes the regulations don't allow for on-board treatment systems.

“What we see is, since it’s zero discharge, it works in theory, but not in operation, because cruise ships aren’t able to hold that much water on board," Nacke says, adding regulations for Alaskan waters are much more stringent than in Canada.


The report, prepared by Vard Marine Inc, covers Canadian Arctic shipping in 2016, when 344 vessels passed through the region.

Though only 16 of those were classified as passenger vessels, they made up more than a third of all grey water discharge in the region -- 13 million litres, out of a total of 33 million litres. That's in large part a function of the sheer number of people on cruise ships, and the greater per-person generation of grey water discharge, around 250 litres per person per day, twice that of a person aboard a cargo vessel.

And it's expected to grow as the Arctic becomes more accessible. By 2035, grey water discharge is set to almost double to 60 million litres, of which tourism will make up almost half, at 27 million litres. 

READ: Arctic spiders are growing bigger, and that's actually a good thing

As Arctic resource development continues, so will grey water discharge from ships serving mining activities, rising from 2.6 million litres in 2016 to a projected 11.1 million litres by 2035, around a four-fold jump.

Nacke says Transport Canada needs to update the regulations to cover grey water discharge, as well as to cover onboard treatment facilities. Nacke says people she spoke to in the region aren't against tourism development, but want to ensure the environment they rely on for food isn't damaged.

“A lot of people in the Arctic rely on the Arctic as their grocery store, and they go out and hunt and get their food from the ocean. Even any discharge of greywater or toxins or pollutants into the environment is harmful for the environment, but also for the people who live there," Nacke says.


A spokeswoman for Transport Canada, Annie Joannette, says, aside from the 1972 Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, Arctic shipping is also governed by other acts and regulations, including the Polar Code adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 2014, which was incorporated into the Arctic Shipping Safety and Pollution Prevention Regulations. However, Joannette acknowledged those regulations did not include provisions for grey water.

Grey water discharge south of 60 degrees is covered by a series of regulations dealing with vessel pollution and dangerous chemicals, which require passenger ships built after 2013 carrying more than 500 passengers to not discharge grey water within three nautical miles from shore, and not without having been treated first.

"Transport Canada is engaged in research with the National Research Council to examine the feasibility of treating greywater in the Arctic," Joannette says. "The information could be used to amend the existing Vessel Pollution and Dangerous Chemicals Regulations to address the issue of greywater discharge North of 60 degrees North latitude."

SOURCES: WWF-Canada | Vard Marine Inc.


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