There is a general perception that conditions arising from pollution are worse than they used to be. This perception flavours the outlook of society regarding all sorts of problems, including local ones. In fact, some conditions are worse, even critical, but in the advanced countries, many are better, in particular problems arising from the discharge of sewage. This chapter briefly reviews how this improvement was brought about so that the reader may have a more balanced view than the one purveyed by the news media.
It is difficult today to appreciate living standards only two to three lifetimes ago. Street and McGhee in their book Water Supply and Sewerage point out that in the seventeenth century, the death rate in cities was greater than the birth rate, due to prevailing insanitary conditions, the difference being made up from rural immigration. Fair and Geyer in their book Water Supply and Waste Disposal quote a report on conditions in England one generation later in 1842:-
"Many dwellings of the poor were arranged around narrow courts having no other opening to the main street than a narrow covered passage. In these courts there were several occupants each of whom accumulated a heap. In some cases, each of these heaps was piled up separately in the court, with a general receptacle in the middle for drainage. In others, a pit was dug in the middle of the court for the general use of all the occupants. In some the whole of the courts up to the very doors of the houses were covered with filth".and referring to the large number of people living in basements:-
"In very many cases the vaults and privies were situated on the same or a higher level, and their contents frequently oozed through the walls into the occupied apartments beside them".
It was due to the work of doctors and engineers that communities in time fought their way to better conditions. By the end of the last century the practice of piping sanitary wastes away from communities was well established. They would discharge into water courses or into the sea, often following provision of some degree of treatment, or be subject to sewage farming. The driving force behind these improvements was primarily the need to avoid health risk. Disease did not differentiate between those with political power and those without. Industrial wastes fared less well as they carried no pathogens and the rivers and estuaries near the cities of wealthy countries were often dead and stinking, as they remain in parts of eastern Europe and South America today.
Initially, the design of facilities to treat sewage had little scientific basis and progress was made by trial and error.
The first modern sewage treatment plant was built in 1914 in Manchester, England. The technology relied on biological organisms to work but in large measure the mechanisms involved were still not understood.
In the following years, England, Germany and America led the way in engineering studies. From that day to this, there has been a continual increase in basic scientific knowledge accompanied by continual improvement in the design of sewage treatment plants. Together with this development was a growing understanding of the science of streams, rivers and estuaries. The two go hand in hand because it is not possible to design a plant rationally without understanding what has to be achieved, and that depends in turn on also understanding conditions in the receiving waters.
By the 1930s, those specializing in this subject knew in large measure what was necessary in treating sewage and how to bring it about. That needed money which in turn needed political will but the matter was not a priority. None the less, progress was made, both in treating industrial wastes and municipal wastes. In our Province, secondary treatment was being provided in the Okanagan in the 1930s and some degree of treatment at other locations.
A major change in public attitude started with the publication in the mid '50s of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring". The conditions about which she wrote arose from the uncontrolled use of herbicides and pesticides but over the years a growing public response led to politicians providing legislation and funds to encompass a broad range of pollution problems. In this province the Pollution Control Act was introduced in the late '60s and the requisite boost in staff to effectively implement it in the early '70s.
A series of public enquiries led to the setting of 'objectives' for various categories of waste, including municipal waste. The degree of treatment these entailed was often greater than theory indicated was needed but with few exceptions the levels set had been met by the early '80s. This achievement has received little attention but was outstanding by any measure. Today there are more than one hundred secondary treatment plants serving B.C.'s municipalities.