On January 30, 2001, eight armed enforcement agents from Environment Canada and the RCMP stormed Dawson City’s municipal offices and presented three search warrants.
Office staff were ordered away from their desks and into the mayor’s office where they were told to sit.
The federal agents then seized computers and boxed up files relating to town’s lack of secondary sewage treatment.
When then-mayor Glen Everitt heard about the raid, he did the first thing that came to mind — he gathered up plastic pails and delivered one to each federal official.
“I started yelling, ‘I expect to see you leave town with piss and shit in the pail,” said Everitt.
“You’re here to charge us, but you’re still going to use a toilet while you’re here … you’re breaking your own law.’”
The federal agents left the pails, but took enough information from the files to lay charges against Dawson City under the Fisheries Act in April 2001 for depositing deleterious material — screened raw sewage — into the Yukon River.
On March 5, 2003, Dawson City was court ordered to build a sewage treatment plant by September 1, 2004, and threatened with a $5,000 fine for each month the town missed the deadline.
Roughly $4.8 million had been spent on plant design when engineers discovered the cost of operating the plant was beyond what the community of 1,200 could afford.
Everitt said he’d warned of that for years.
“To (Environment Canada) money wasn’t an issue … cost of living wasn’t an issue,” said Everitt. “It would be cheaper for us to pay the fine then it would be to operate the system.”
Dawson is now considering a lagoon, but for Everitt the question isn’t where to put it.
The question is, why hasn’t the federal government taken the same hardline approach with Victoria, BC, which dumps billions of litres of sewage into the Pacific Ocean each year?
“We have 450 residential toilets in Dawson,” said Everitt, “(Victoria) has that in half a block … It’s like they’re above the law and it makes me sick.”
David Anderson, former minister of Environment, admits that Victoria’s sewage is technically breaking the law, but cautions it’s important to keep the big picture in perspective.
“At the very end of pipe you obviously will violate the Fisheries Act, (but) when the laws are applied in a draconian way, you just don’t get intelligent results,” said Anderson.
“The law is the law, no matter what,” said Phil Wong, a senior program engineer with Environment Canada.
The problem is that Environment Canada has never tested the toxicity of Victoria’s sewage, he said.
“Environment Canada is not involved in any receiving environment monitoring, so we can’t say, with certainty, that they are breaking any laws,” said Wong.
But, Environment Canada is working towards a legislated solution to clean up Victoria’s situation, said Wong.
“Environment Canada intends to develop a regulation under the Fisheries Act,” he said. “In that regulation, we are hoping to have the equivalent of conventional secondary sewage treatment as a minimum.
“We feel that this is a more efficient use of our resources and time.”
Environment Canada took a different approach in Dawson City where, according to a press release, the department began an investigation after enforcement officials collected sewage samples at the town’s screening plant on August 16, 2000.
Vic Enns, head of pollution abatement with Environment Canada in Whitehorse, said the subsequent charges against Dawson City helped the department achieve its goal of sewage treatment for the town.
“(Dawson City) had a long-standing bad history of ignoring the law,” said Enns.
“We have a court order now that requires them to build a facility. That was our objective and we’re confident that it will be complied with.”
Enns points to Dawson City downplaying the need for a plant as proof a firm approach was necessary.
“Dawson has been under some sort of instruction … since 1984 to build a facility, (but) spent the bulk of its efforts in trying to discount the need for a new facility.
“It was certainly our position that it should be built.”
However, in 1999, toxicology studies conducted by McLeay Environmental Ltd. proved Dawson’s sewage was harmless.
That made federal officials livid, said Everitt.
“They completely objected,” said Everitt. “Scientifically we now know that we aren’t harming anything. In fact, we had evidence that we were actually helping it a little bit … with nutrients.”
It’s the same argument Anderson used to oppose a plant in Victoria that could cost $400 million to build.
“(Sewage) increases marine vegetation,” says Anderson. “It’s just the same as putting manure on farmer’s fields.”
Anderson says the high cost of construction also helped him resist a sewage plant in Victoria.
“My job as a politician representing the area was to decide whether it should be done — $400 million can buy a phenomenal amount of something else,” said Anderson.
“To spend it on sewage would be money lost because there would be no benefit.”
Anderson can’t recall any involvement in Dawson City’s case, but said the harsh treatment could be due to one Environment Canada enforcement official using their discretion to apply the law in a “rigid or inflexible way.”
The enforcement branch of Environment Canada has declined several invitations to comment on its different approaches to the two communities.
“It’s a file (that) sits at a fairly senior level of government, so people get a little bit nervous talking about it,” said John Dyck, head of investigations with Environment Canada.
“They wanted to use Dawson as an example,” said Everitt.
The effect of the raid in Dawson City still lingers.
Everitt and his council were dismissed in April 2004 by the government of Yukon after the town fell $5 million in debt.
Everitt said the fight over sewage contributed to the town government’s downfall.
“It cost the city a lot of money and time that could have been invested in other problems that the city was facing,” he said.
“If Environment Canada had come to the table and said, ‘let’s sit together and figure out how we can make something work, whether it takes 20 years to find a solution,’ we wouldn’t be where we are,” added Everitt.