Pioneering water pollution measures

Submitted by Nadine Levin and George Cornwall

The Water Pollution Control Directorate was formed in 1971 at the time Canada established a formal Department of the Environment (now known as Environment and Climate Change Canada). One of the first employees hired at the time of the department’s creation, the late Peter Higgins became the first Director General of the new directorate, located within the equally new Environmental Protection Service.

Groups made up of federal and provincial representatives, scientists, engineers, and industry experts worked together to figure out which pollutants were being released and how they were affecting the environment. They then set limits and restrictions on these pollutants. Having these issues addressed by a federal department was a major change at the time since they were previously only being regulated at a provincial and territorial level. Therefore, Peter’s team used the federal Fisheries Act as a way to create water pollution regulations. Interestingly, the Fisheries Act has been on-the-books since 1868, about the time of Confederation!

In 1971, the Pulp and Paper Liquid Effluent Regulations (PPLER) became the first sector specific regulation under the pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act. They were followed by the Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulations, which are known today as the Metal and Diamond Mining Effluent Regulations. These regulations require that effluent (referring to the wastewater released) from industry be tested, monitored, and reported on. This helps protect the water quality in our lakes and rivers.

In 1992, the Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations (PPER) replaced the 1971 regulations. This improved the protection of fish and their habitat and widened the application of the regulations to all mills. Following that success, the department used the same approach to improve the mining regulations. Therefore, during Peter’s career, he had the double success of bringing into existence the first regulatory regime under the pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act and of modernizing 2 of the industry specific regulations.

An Environmental Emergencies Officer extends a long sampling probe into a small body of water.

Figure 1 – An Environmental Emergencies Officer analyzing surface water with a probe (2002). Photograph submitted by André Laflamme.

A historic black and white photograph of a pulp and paper mill along a waterway.
Figure 2 – Pulp and paper mill on a waterway near Ottawa (1913). Credit: William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-010631

These federal regulations to control pollution from industrial sources spurred provinces and territories to improve their efforts to control water pollution as well. Therefore, the efforts of the groups that worked on these groundbreaking regulations reached beyond the federal realm.

Please visit the Sources of pollution: industry Web page to learn more.

The Remembering Peter Higgins Group submitted information used in this story and wrote this tribute piece about Peter’s legacy at ECCC.

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