Limited Disposal Access is a Constant Threat to Pumpers

As a Canadian city refuses to take septage from outside its boundary, septic service providers face a difficult way forward

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You may not have heard of Chilliwack, British Columbia, in Canada, a city of about 80,000 people an hour east of Vancouver. But, unfortunately, most pumpers are all too familiar with one issue wastewater professionals are dealing with there: dwindling options for septage disposal.

In 2018, Chilliwack officials created a bylaw that stated the city would only accept septage or portable sanitation waste generated within its city limits. But not too many locals would know about the new rule because the city didn’t enforce it — until it started turning pumpers away recently. That happened because of a reported 40% increase in trucked waste to the local treatment plant over the past two years, putting extraordinary pressure on wastewater infrastructure.

The new enforcement is forcing pumpers to take drastic measures, including downsizing their businesses and trying to skirt the rules in questionable ways, says James Stiksma, a member of the board of WCOWMA Onsite Wastewater Management Association of British Columbia and owner of Canadian Septic, a local onsite system design firm. Pumpers fed up with the situation asked Stiksma to speak up for them with government officials, and he said, “I’ll rock the boat; I don’t mind.”

The situation is concerning to Stiksma.

“There’s definitely a bunch of guys who are flat-out lying about where they’re getting their [septage] from,” Stiksma says about pumpers continuing to transport rural loads to the city plant and claiming the waste is from within the accepted boundary area. “In my eyes, it’s the best of the bad solutions. At least we know it’s getting picked up and treated responsibly, albeit in a somewhat-nefarious manner. One pumper who contacted me to get this started said he’s lost 50% of his business. Of his two trucks, he can only run one of them.”

Does this scenario sound familiar? I frequently hear from pumpers in the U.S. and Canada who are worried about restricted access to disposal sites, as well as dumping fees that are growing exponentially. The former threatens to increase the cost of doing business and decimating the bottom line for small businesses that often operate on the razor’s edge of profitability. The latter means passing on huge price increases to customers, many who often complain they can’t afford needed septic service.


Stiksma estimates 20,000 to 25,000 residents live in unincorporated areas within the Fraser Valley Regional District, outside of Chilliwack. They have septic systems and previously their waste was taken to the city’s treatment plant for disposal. With that receiving station now closed off, pumpers have to battle for very minor access to other area treatment plants or face a nearly four-hour round-trip disposal run to a greater Vancouver plant. And that commute gets frequent and costly, especially since Stiksma says the systems he’s now designing use 1,200- to 1,500-gallon septic tanks that quickly fill a typical vacuum service truck.

Local officials aren’t making the situation any easier, either, as they continue to promote development at the same time they’ve cut off access to wastewater disposal, according to Stiksma.

“They’re barreling to a bigger issue down the road because nobody is really paying attention. You know the Fraser Valley Regional District is still issuing out permits for new homes knowing full well that they’ve got nowhere for them to dump the sewage waste,” he says. “[The WCOWMA board is] an educational body working for the wastewater professionals to educate homeowners, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do on this. It’s why we went to the media.”

Recent news accounts have featured Stiksma explaining the plight of the pumping community and how disposal restrictions will hurt many in these unincorporated areas. But at the same time, Stiksma has been lobbying with local, provincial and federal government officials to get something done.

“We’ve been trying to put some pressure on the local politicians to come up with a solution, but at the end of the day, everybody is pointing fingers at each other over whose responsibility it is,” Stiksma says. “If you talk to some federal folks in those districts, they say, ‘Oh no, it’s all municipal and provincial.’ If you talk to the guys at the provincial level, they say it’s all municipal. And when you talk to the municipal folks, they say ‘No, we’re only responsible to the people who live within our community.’”

Amid the pessimism, there may be some positive action coming down the line. According to news accounts, the city is working on a treatment plant expansion slated for completion at the end of 2025. And Stiksma said one business owner has talked about the potential for a private treatment plant solution. But nothing is firm enough to help local pumpers right now.


Stiksma believes the increase in septage flow can be traced to several worker camps serving the Trans Mountain Pipeline in recent years. He explained that multiple camps each housing 300-400 workers utilize large holding tanks for waste, and those tanks are constantly pumped to keep the operations going.

“In my opinion, [the increase] is almost all because of the pipeline. A local [pumping] company purchased two pump trucks solely to serve the pipelines. That volume should go down dramatically in a year or so,” he says. But that won’t likely reduce the need for more treatment plant capacity and may not result in lifting the ban on septage and portable sanitation waste coming from outside the city.

Stiksma is concerned about the environmental impact if no reasonable disposal options are created for pumpers. “Guys are just going to find other solutions, like dumping in the bush or finding a storm drain, or like one of the guys I talked to who said, ‘Well, I’ll just go pump it in the river then.’ He was dead serious. He wasn’t joking,” Stiksma says.

If the government doesn’t address the issue, how about a private treatment facility to serve area pumpers? Stiksma has doubts that will be feasible. He says farmland in the area costs CAD $1.5 million per acre and established commercial property costs five times that amount. Add to that zoning fees, the cost to set up a facility and showing lenders, you have real contracts for service.

“There’s a lot of upfront expenses and no guarantee you’ll ever see a return on it,” he says.


Until a solution is found, Stiksma says he’ll keep working to educate the public and the politicians about the important role pumpers and installers play in ensuring a clean environment.

“There’s just too many people who look at this industry and think it’s not that important. Nobody ever thinks about it,” he says. “The whole point of plumbing in the first place was to protect public health, and if we’re not pumping out these tanks and we’re not maintaining them properly, we’re going to start affecting waterways and water tables because improperly treated wastewater is being introduced into them.

“Something serious is going to have to happen to get anyone to react to it. I joked with a few guys that maybe what it takes is one delivery to the front steps of the Fraser Valley Regional District to get some sort of response.”

On the design side of the decentralized wastewater industry, Stiksma knows that disposal will impact his company just as it does the pumpers in his area. He asks himself if he faces an ethical dilemma when continuing to design and install systems in areas where there is no place to send the sludge it creates. So he’s happy to be on the front lines representing the needs of the pumpers.

“It’s a great thing to get out there and represent the industry and to help people understand the challenges we are facing,” he says. “You flush your toilet, and do you think about what happens to the waste after that? Not really.”


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