Adapting to new government regulations, coping with disposal issues draws wastewater professionals together at the Ontario Association of Sewage Industry Services.
Formed in October 1991, the Ontario Sewage and Liquid Waste Carriers Association was originally for pumpers and haulers in the Canadian province. In 1998, the group expanded its focus to include installers and the portable sanitation industry, changing its name to OASIS, the Ontario Association of Sewage Industry Services.
As OASIS celebrates its 25th anniversary at its annual conference in October, Chris Aitkin is just starting his second year as the group’s president, carrying on the legacy of his family’s business, Rankin’s Septic Tank Pumping and Environment Services. His father, Jim, became involved in the group shortly after its inception and also served as president of the organization, which now has about 250 member companies. Chris joined the board in 2008 when his father became ill.
How much has changed over the 25 years of OASIS?
Aitkin: Everything has changed, from equipment and insurance to how disposal is done and how the government runs things. We have built relationships with the ministries, providing advice and raising concerns where we see necessary. We’re very excited about our 25th year; it’s really a milestone for us.
You are in the midst of another big change; tell us about OASIS and the Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association.
Aitkin: Our most recent important undertaking is the relationship we are building with OOWA. We are combining our conferences starting in 2017 to provide the entire industry with a one-stop shop once a year. It’s been coming for a long time. Our members won’t have to choose which conference to attend, many attend both, but they can support both organizations in a joint conference and trade show. It’s going to be more cost-effective for the members and for OASIS and OOWA.
We have formed joint committees so everything is going to be much neater, tighter and more organized because we’re working with each other to reach common goals. When you have two associations that have the same interests, there are certain points where it just makes more sense to collaborate. When we talk to the government about something, they’ll ask us what OOWA thinks or vice versa. Now it’s going to be, “We both think this.” Sitting at the table together brings that much more volume to our voice.
The working relationship will benefit both groups as we can stand united and carry forth the message far stronger than the individual organization can alone.
This industry is still mostly small family businesses in some of the most remote communities in Ontario, so there is strength in numbers.
How close is this to being a merger?
Aitkin: The word merger has not entered anybody’s vocabulary. We are strictly working on collaboration between two organizations that have the same goals that can achieve success better than one big organization.
Our memberships are different. Some overlap, but the majority of OASIS members are pumpers, haulers, the portable restroom people and some installers. The mainstay of OOWA is designers, installers, manufacturers, engineers, regulators and researchers. We have things we concentrate on like portable restrooms that have no relevance to them.
What are the biggest issues for OASIS right now?
Aitkin: We are working with the Ministry of Labour to define best practices for workers and suppliers around the rules and regulations for portable restrooms.
We need a level playing field, for everything to be policed the same way with the same expectations. We want everybody to have a better understanding of what is expected and are hosting information sessions with MOL and the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association.
We’re always working with the Ministry of the Environment to improve disposal practices. With government, everything changes all the time. You have new people in place, and we really have to keep our nose to the grindstone. It’s all about that main goal: We want things to be environmentally clean and safe for everybody concerned.
Looking back at 25 years, what are some of the key accomplishments of OASIS?
Aitkin: We’ve done a lot of work with the government. When the province downloaded responsibility for septic systems to the municipalities in the mid ‘90s, we worked diligently to have our members certified under the new regulations and helped the process along. Portable restrooms in the construction industry have been at the forefront for many years. We were involved when the rules were revamped about 20 years ago.
The biggest benefit I see is the networking. If somebody needs help, I can pick up the phone and call someone in another part of the province. One of our director’s sons was killed in an accident, a member’s truck caught fire, another member’s truck caved in, somebody broke their leg. There isn’t a time that somebody didn’t pick up the phone and ask what they could do to help.
The day after my father died in 2012, all the guys from my area and at least five from across the province contacted me and asked what I needed to get through the next couple of days. There are many instances of our members sending jobs to each other and working together in times of need. That’s the kind of people we have as members and the camaraderie we have.
One of the most important things to OASIS is family. You can watch the generations change as the younger ones move up and start bearing the brunt of the workload, the fathers teaching their sons and daughters, and then the children teaching their parents new technologies and better ways.
What do you see as the big issues in the future?
Aitkin: With the provincial government, it’s always been the goal to limit land application. Doing away with it is not a reality. We’d all love to dispose at a sewage treatment plant, but we don’t all have access to one. There are some areas of the province where plants don’t have the ability to take on that much sewage from septic tanks, so land application is the only alternative. Some people use lagoons; some have put in their own treatment facilities with reed beds or other technology.
We work with government to get receiving stations put in when they build new wastewater treatment plants. It’s just a matter of finding that happy medium and what is feasible. It’s the same as in the United States. Some areas are very good at disposal and they provide you a cost-effective way to dispose of the sewage. Some have outlawed land application, but if they provide me an economical way to dispose of it, I don’t mind.
Disposal is always going to be an issue, always has been. It’s why this organization was brought to life 25 years ago and we keep plugging along and succeeding in keeping things moving and looking for better ways to do it.