It’s near the end of December so the news is very dated, but I wanted to write about the Montreal sewage dump. There were a lot of strong feelings about this particular issue, but there was also a lot of complexities to the story that people glossed over, that I want to address.
Downtown Montreal, Adam W., Creative Commons
The Outrage: The plan to dump sewage in the St. Lawrence river was conceived as a method to deal with the raw sewage that had to be relocated while fixing a snow interceptor. This story did not really hit the news until about 3 weeks before the planned dump. Environmentalists denounced the plan, petitions were signed, strongly-worded letters were written. And to some people it seemed like the government was listening, as the federal government (still under Harper) called for a delay. They said they would like to do a scientific inquiry. Now that struck me as very strange because (1) you can’t really do a thorough scientific inquiry in a week, that’s just not enough time and (2) as the City of Montreal pointed out (specifically Mayor Dennis Coderre) the plan to dump the sewage into the river was conceived and communicated to the government back in September of 2014. It was deemed the cheapest and easiest option. Do I find it concerning that cities will immediately decide to go with the cheapest and easiest option regardless of potential environmental and health factors? Of course I do. Unfortunately no one from the general public seemed to be aware of the plan, but if the government had reservations they should have – would have – brought them up at the initial planning stages before everything was set up and ready to go, an entire year later.
The Politics: Mayor Dennis Coderre accused the federal government of stalling because of the election, as an effort to shore up support and gain votes. If we’re judging by the timing alone, I would have to agree. Several people have also been bitterly disappointed that the new Environmental Minister Catherine McKenna gave Montreal permission to continue with their plan. While I understand why they would be disappointed, the reality is that there was simply no way for the new government to do anything else. Infrastructure damage is a serious problem. If the pipes had not been fixed and had simply ruptured the amount of sewage that would be dumped into the river would be massive regardless, and the time it would take to organize and reconstruct the pipe would have been much longer. For better or for worse, they simply had to go ahead with it.
The Facts: What about the dump itself? It went ahead as planned and even ended three days earlier than expected. This meant 4.9 billion litres of sewage was dumped into the St. Lawrence river (as opposed to the initial estimate of 8 billion litres). The river flows at a rate of 6,000 to 7,000 cubic metres per second, enough to dilute the sewage on the whole. The timing of the dump meant that some of the more sensitive species of the river were not in a critical stage (spawning/mating). Academics agreed with this; five experts from Ecole Polytechnique weighed in on Mayer Coderre’s side.
The true problem here is not the one incident. It is that sewage dumps in rivers are an accepted solution everywhere. Tom Mulcair, leader of the NDP party stated that he would never have allowed such a thing to happen – even though he had no problem with a sewage dump in this very river back in 2003 when he was Quebec’s environmental minister. Victoria, in BC, doesn’t even try to contain their waste. All of it (roughly 130 million litres daily) goes straight into the Juan de Fuca Strait. Other culprits include Winnipeg, Windsor, and Toronto. A United States Senator (Charles Schumer) tried to get the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a US agency, to prevent the dump despite their lack of jurisdiction but did not once address the fact that it happens across the border just as often. Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and many others routinely dump their sewage in the Great Lakes system.
So What? My main point is that while I wish the dump had not happened, getting outraged over this one event is not helpful. This is a routine occurrence, across the globe, and Canada is not exempt from this behaviour. If we want clean water systems we will have to fight for it by passing laws and policies that prevent the dumping of sewage and make the creation of infrastructure to handle our waste a priority. And yes, that includes being willing to put up with the huge amount of money and time that will need to be invested into projects that work towards this reality. No matter where you live there is bound to be at least one (and likely more) organizations devoted to clean water action. If you’re interested in healthy water then get involved and make sure to speak out against sewage dumps before it becomes an inevitable necessity.