The Report of the International Joint Commission Formed to Investigate This Matter— Elaborate Reports Issued, Prepared by Experts—The United States Suggested and the Canadian Government Concurred in Asking for Recommendations

UNDER the terms of Article IX of the Treaty of January 11th, 1909, the governments of the United States and Canada referred to the International Joint Commission, for investigation and report, the following questions:—

1.—To what extent and by what causes and in what localities have the boundary waters between the United States and Canada been polluted so as to be injurious to the public health and unfit for domestic or other uses?

2.— In what way or manner, whether by construction and operation of suitable drainage canals or plants at convenient points or otherwise, is it possible and advisable to remedy or prevent the pollution of these waters, and by what means or arrangement can the proper construction or operation of remedial or preventive works, or a system or method of rendering these waters sanitary and suitable for domestic and other uses, be best secured and maintained in order to insure the adequate protection and development of all interests involved on both sides of the boundary and to fulfil the obligations undertaken in Article IV of the Waterways Treaty of January 11th, 1909, between the United States and Great Britain, in which it is agreed that the waters therein defined as boundary waters and waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other?

Extensive Investigation

This investigation, in which the Commission had the co-operation and support of the federal, state, and provincial boards of health on both sides of the boundary, involved extensive bacteriological examinations to enable the Commission to answer the first question in the reference.

The second question, as to remedies, involved an examination by sanitary engineers of the existing municipal sewage disposal and water-supply plants on both sides of the boundary, and the working out of plans designed to afford an effective remedy for the pollution found to exist.

The Commission published elaborate reports, prepared by its experts, on both the bacteriological and the engineering sides of the investigation, and also its own annual report to the two governments, containing a summary of the results of the investigation and the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations, copies of all of which are available on application to the commission.

As a result of these recommendations, the United States proposed that Canada should join in requesting the Commission to prepare and submit for the consideration of the governments such rules and regulations as might be necessary to regulate and prohibit pollution of boundary waters and waters crossing the boundary.

The following order-in-council embodies the concurrence of the Dominion Government in the proposed reference :—

The Order-in-Council

“The Committee of the Privy Council have had before them a report, dated 15th February, 1919, from the Acting Secretary of State for External Affairs, submitting to Your Excellency the final report of the International Joint Commission in the matter of the reference by the United States and the Dominion of Canada relative to the pollution of boundary waters.

“The Minister, in so doing, takes occasion to refer to a despatch from His Majesty’s Charge d’Affaires at Washington to Your Excellency, enclosing copy of a note from the United States Secretary of State dealing with the condition of affairs revealed by this report, and especially with the recommendation of the Commissioners that, in order to remedy and prevent the pollution of boundary waters, and to render them sanitary and suitable for domestic purposes and other uses, and to secure adequate protection and development of all interests involved on both sides of the boundary, and to fulfil the obligations undertaken in Article IV of the treaty, it is advisable to confer upon the International Joint Commission ‘some additional jurisdiction to make rules and regulations, directions and orders, as in its judgment may be deemed necessary to regulate and prohibit the pollution of the boundary waters and waters crossing the boundary.’

“The Minister agrees with Mr. Lansing in the advisability—in order to an adequate consideration of the above recommendation—of requesting the Commission to prepare for submission to their respective governments drafts of the instruments best calculated, in the opinion of the Commissioners, to give effect to their recommendations, whether by convention or legislation, or by both methods.

“The Minister, therefore, recommends that His Majesty’s Charge d’Affaires be informed that the Canadian Government are ready to associate themselves with the United States Government for the above-mentioned purpose.

“The Committee concurring, recommend that Your Excellency may be pleased to forward a copy hereof to His Majesty’s Charge d’Affaires at Washington, for the information of the United States Government.”

The conclusions and recommendations in the Commission’s final report on pollution of boundary waters were as follows:

Conclusions and Recommendations

1. The Great Lakes beyond their shore waters and their polluted areas at the mouths of the rivers which flow into them are, except so far as they are affected by vessel pollution, in a state of almost absolute purity. With the exception of these pure areas, the entire stretch of boundary waters, including Rainy River, St. Mary’s River, St. Clair River, Detroit River, Niagara River, St. Lawrence River from Lake Ontario to Cornwall, and the St. John River from Grand Falls to Ednutndston, New Brunswick, is polluted to an extent which renders the water in its unpurified state unfit for drinking purposes. This pollution has its origin chiefly in the sewage and storm flows from the riparian cities and towns and the sewage from vessels. It is very intense along the shores of the Detroit and Niagara Rivers and in the contaminated areas in the lakes. Throughout the whole length of the boundary waters where sewage is discharged from the sewerage works of cities and towns the pollution is most concentrated in the short waters on the side of the boundary on which it originates. These shore waters, besides being in places unsightly, malodorous, and absolutely unfit for domestic purposes, are a source of serious danger to summer residents, bathers, and others who frequent the localities. So foul are they in many places that municipal ordinances have been passed prohibiting bathing in them.

2. In the Detroit and Niagara Rivers conditions exist which imperil the health and welfare of the citizens of both countries in direct contravention of the treaty. This is true, though in a less marked degree, of the Rainy and St. John Rivers.

3. In the St. Mary’s, St. Clair, and St. Lawrence Rivers pollution exists which is in substantial contravention of the spirit of the treaty, and unless these conditions are improved, and the rivers placed under the control of competent authority, the resulting injury will be much more pronounced as population increases.

4. Vessel pollution in certain parts of boundary waters exists to an extent which causes substantial injury to health and property. It is derived from two sources, sewage waste from vessels and “water ballast” which is taken in by lake vessels at their ports of departure and emptied into these waters at or near their ports of destination. Vessel pollution is distinctly traceable in boundary waters in lanes and channels which vessels traverse in navigating them, their waters being thereby rendered unfit for drinking purposes.

5. In some cases sawmill and other mill wastes, garbage, offal, carcases, and other refuse matters are discharged into boundary waters. This practice results generally in a contravention of the treaty.

6. It is feasible and practicable, without imposing an unreasonable burden upon the offending communities, to prevent or remedy pollution, both in the case of boundary waters and waters crossing the boundary.

(a) In the case of city sewage, this can best be accomplished by the installation of suitable collecting and treatment works, the latter having special reference to the removal of bacteria and matters in suspension.

(b) In the case of vessel sewage, a feasible and inexpensive remedy lies in the employment of recognized methods of disinfection before it is discharged. In the case of water ballast suitable rules and regulations should be prescribed with a view of protecting the water intakes.

(c) The discharge of garbage and sawmill waste into boundary waters should be prohibited, and industrial and other wastes, which are causing appreciable injury, should be discharged subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed.

7. In order to remedy and prevent the pollution of boundary waters and to render them sanitary and suitable for domestic purposes and other uses, and to secure adequate protection and development of all interests involved on both sides of the boundary, and to fulfil the obligations undertaken in Article IV of the treaty, it is advisable to confer upon the International Joint Commission ample jurisdiction to regulate and prohibit this pollution of boundary waters and waters crossing the boundary.




The keynote of the final report of the International Joint Commission relative to the Pollution of Boundary Waters appears under the heading, “Inadequacy of Common Law.” This paragraph reads as follows: “When settlements had been made along our boundary waters to an extent that urban communities commenced to grow, and sewerage systems in consequence of this growth began to be installed, such was the immensity of these rivers that settlers living farther down stream probably neither noticed nor protested against the discharge into them of what was relatively an infinitesimal amount of pollution. When these communities, therefore, installed sewerage works, they took advantage of the diluting powers of the river, and resorted to the simple and inexpensive expedient of discharging into them their sewage in its raw condition. The custom of doing so has now become universal. The selfishness of vested interests, familiarity of evil conditions, which has begotten an indifference to both the doing and the suffering of wrong, an ill-directed spirit of economy averse to the assumption of financial burdens to remedy what was before regarded as an existing or potential evil to other communities, and the disinclination to change ingrained in humanity, have resulted in a situation along the frontier which is generally chaotic, everywhere perilous, and in some cases disgraceful. The common law having proved inadequate to the task of controlling affairs, it has been supplemented or superseded by legislative enactments, which in their practical workings have about as signally failed.”

A Delicate Problem.

It is to be observed from this that the Commission was entrusted with a most delicate problem, that of suggesting the nature of the international intervention where the custom of both countries had resulted in an invasion of common law and, as a further consequence, a direct contravention of treaty obligations. Section 7 of the conclusions of the Commission is probably the one of most vital interest today. This section is as follows: “In order to remedy and prevent the pollution of boundary waters, and to render them sanitary and suitable for domestic purposes and other uses, and to secure adequate protection and development of all interests involved on both sides of the boundary, and to fulfil the obligations , . . of the Treaty, it is advisable to confer upon the International Joint Commission ample jurisdiction to regulate and prohibit this pollution of boundary waters and waters crossing the boundary.” To appreciate fully what this recommendation involves, one is forced back to the premises from which this recommendation naturally follows. This is found in portion six of the final report, under the heading of “Limits of Permissible Pollution and Standards of Sewage Purification.” It appears to the writer that the Commission does not ask for authority to regulate as it may deem advisable—without limit—but that it recommends that some authority (itself appearing as the most natural) be clothed with power to regulate as consistent with the spirit of treaty obligations and in a manner consonant with their findings and conclusions.

Limits of Permissible Pollution.

To determine the extent of remedial treatment required in each particular case would involve consideration of the varied lines that have been followed by the Commission throughout the present enquiry; the existence of pollution and of harm, actual or potential, to domestic or other uses, to public health or property; the results of the engineering studies of feasible remedies; and the economic facts relating to the conservation of stream resources. It would require the balancing of the value of remedial measures in the terms of public good against the cost of the requisite improvements. On the one hand, it is evident that the paramount importance of public health and the binding obligations of the treaty must be borne in mind. These make impossible the recommendation of such lenient remedial measures as would work economic injustice or would endorse officially the continued spoliation of a natural resource to the injury of the citizens upon both sides of these waters.

Must Not Be Unreasonable.

On the other hand, sewage treatment requirements must not be made so excessive and unreasonable as to involve the cities and towns along these waters in an expenditure entirely unjustifiable. They should be reasonable and feasible from the standpoint of engineering construction or adaptability to local conditions, of the availability of necessary lands, of out-falls and incident structures, and of costs. In view of the fact that pollution in the Detroit and Niagara Bivers, and its transboundary effects therein, are much greater than in the other boundary waters, these two rivers will be treated in one class and the remaining boundary waters as another class. The problem of necessary bacterial purification of the sewage discharged into the two former is one of extreme perplexity, owing to the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining definite and ample data and the relative importance to be attached to many of the factors which enter into it. After a great deal of consideration, the Commission has, in view of all the circumstances of the case, come to the conclusion that for the present, and as an immediate step in the way of restoration of the purity of these streams, the communities responsible for the discharge of raw sewage into them should purify it to such an extent that the resulting average cross-sectional pollution in each river will not exceed the limit of safe loading for a water-purification plant. In other words, the standard of purification required of these communities should be such that the streams, after receiving their treated sewage, would have a mean annual cross-sectional average of B. coli not exceeding 500 per 100 c.c. Compliance with the requirements of this standard would not impose upon the riparian communities along these rivers discharging their sewage therein a burden which would be unreasonable or greater than that ordinarily imposed upon urban communities which purify their sewage.

Water Standard Tentative.

It necessarily follows that this standard of sewage purification, being based upon a tentative standard of safe loading of water-purification plants, must itself be tentative. The growing appreciation of sanitation, the consequent demand for a higher degree of purity in water supplies, and the constant improvement that is taking place in the processes of sewage treatment tend to make a proper standard of sewage purification one of ever-increasing stringency. The discovery of a new and much more economical, or possibly a profitable, method of disposal of sewage, for example, would naturally lead to the adoption of a stricter standard of permissible pollution in heavily polluted streams. Furthetmore, any limit of permissible impurity that might be established, even temporarily, for a given stream must be influenced largely by strictly local consideration. The data necessary for the formulation of a fixed standard, either of sewage purification or of water purification, are not sufficiently well established at the present time. By more precise methods of experimental study there will doubtless be obtained in the future a more ample and accurate command of facts, which will admit of the determination of a more definite standard.

Bacterial Standard Not Sufficient.

In view of the difficulties and uncertainties of bacteriological technique, it is distinctly advantageous to have, if possible, a working rule which is more accurate and readily determinable than the bacterial standard suggested. Professor Phelps, the consulting engineer, taking the results of the extensive investigations reported upon in the “Progress Report” as an index of the conditions actually existing, worked out, as will appear from his calculations on page 9 of his report to the Commission, such a rule or standard. He found that if the sewage of the cities be diluted in a stream flow to four cubic feet per second per capita of the population, the resulting water will contain approximately 500 B. coli per 100 c. c. If the dilution is proportionately less than this, a corresponding degree of purification of the sewage will be necessary to maintain the final stream condition. Further investigations will no doubt make possible a more accurate statement of these relations, but, as the entire matter of standards is always subject to revision in the light of accumulated knowledge, it is considered that for all purposes of a present enquiry, the practical equivalence of the dilution and the bacteriological standards may be accepted.

•Excrrpts from address delivered October 3, 1918, to the American Society of Municipal Improvements.

Standards for Boundary Rivers.

These standards are not applicable to rivers other than the Niagara and Detroit, but it is in no sense to be inferred, however, that remedial or protective measures are not required in their case, where the dilution, based upon the entire cross-section of the stream, exceeds in every instance four feet per second per capita of the population. The view of the advisory engineers is adopted that no untreated sewage should be discharged into boundary waters, but the Commission considers it inadvisable at the present time to prescribe what the amount of treatment should be in the case of these remaining rivers. The sewage from each community along their banks must be considered by itself in respect of the degree of purification that is necessary, basing the standard on the reasonable use of the waters, the practical possibilities of remedial and protective measures, the economic value of stream purification, and also the economic value of stream pollution, proper regard being had to the public health. After giving much attention to the question of standards of purification in these six boundary rivers, the Commission has come to the conclusion that the fixing of standards for them and the subsequent modifications of these standards, from time to time, should be left to some authority clothed with the necessary power to deal with the question. This authority should also have power to vary, from time to time as conditions demand, the standards of sewage purification in the Detroit and Niagara rivers. It is forced upon the writer’s attention that the finding of the Commission cannot but result in Federal interference both on the part of Canada and of the United States, for their finding in no uncertain language recites that treaty obligations have been violated, and the violation has imperiled public health and the property of both countries. It remains to be seen whether public sentiment of the two countries will be strong enough to override the petty interests of corporation, state and provincial executives, and succeed in expressing, through the authority of some international board of control, the unity of their interests; and by the restoration of our boundary waters to a state of purity natural to their present and future uses’, erecting a flaming and enduring beacon to guide us toward a better judgment of the obligations of modern civilization.

Water has been turned into the new main leading from the city reservoir, Philipsburg, Mont., to Broadwa -, and the city now has adequate protection from fire, and a water supply that will be sufficient for years to come, the residents believe.