The Montreal sewage dump will happen again

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.

st lawrence riverDowntown 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.

Sources: CBC1, CBC2 Globe and Mail1, Globe and Mail2CTVNews, National Post, Global News


The Doomsday Vault


The Svalbard Global Seed Bank, as the name implies, is currently home to over 430,000 species of plants, with room for up to 4.5 million samples. Svalbard naturally provides the perfect environment for storing biological supplies, as it is both very cold and low in humidity. The ambitious project was founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and built into an abandoned mine site. The vault is also used for conferences and events, hosting environmentalists, policy-makers, and government personnel in order to tackle the environmental issues plaguing the world today.

While the project seems like an ambitious intellectual project its nickname as the Doomsday Vault gives rise to the more pessimistic side of seed banks, of which Svalbard is just one. While previous generations feared the apocalypse in the form of nuclear destruction, our generation fears a more biological destruction, a slow break down of order as extreme weather events, floods, and droughts make stable environments scarcer and more valuable. The vault protects against this some-what plausible scenario of future catastrophe. Most people in countries with stable governments fail to realize that these scenarios are already playing out across the world. The Svalbard Vault opened in 2008, and this year the first request has already arrived. A Lebanon-based seed bank that used to be located in Syria has requested that 130 boxes of samples they had previously stored in the vault be given to them as they relocate to a new location in Beirut.

If the Svalbard Vault did not exist there was a possibility that several germlines could have been lost during the ongoing war in Syria. The importance of having a global back up is clear, though it’s not a good sign that it’s resources have been required so soon after its creation. While the preservation of biodiversity is one of its main goals, the preservation of food security, through as many biologically distinct strains of edible plants as possible, is equally important and has been a growing concern. Between violence in countries like Syria, making regular farming and food production activities an impossibility, climate change driving extremes, and monoculture overtaking increasing amounts of farmland, vaults like the one in Svalbard will only become increasingly necessary.


Picture is the illumnated rood of the Svalbard seed bank, Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

Source one, and source two

What you should know about the new Mars discovery

mars gifNasa

Previously: Astronomers have known for a while (since 2002-ish) that there was water on Mars – but only in the form of ice, located on the polar caps of the planet.

Now: Why is liquid water such a big deal? It was previously thought that due to several factors (like the freezing temperatures and the thin, practically nonexistent atmosphere), that there would be no way for liquid water to exist on Mars. This discovery changes that!

What: The evidence for water is indirect evidence, which is to say that no one has yet to see the water itself. What has been found is a sort of stain that flows down the cliffs and craters. These stains are composed of hydrated salts, which can’t really exist without water. Visual and infrared data show that in the warmer periods these stains appear, grow, and flow downwards; in the colder periods they disappear again.

How: The environmental factors on Mars did not suddenly change, so how is there now liquid water when it previously was thought to be impossible? There are currently a couple of different theories floating around. One is that the ground is porous, and the water remains frozen in ground during the winter and in the warmer summer months melts out of the ground. Another strong possibility is that the salts found on the surface of Mars absorb water until they contain enough to run downhill. This explains the hydrated salt stains nicely. It’s a process that can be seen in deserts on Earth and the process itself is known as deliquescence. The salts themselves are actually the reason why it may be possible for liquid water to exist at all. Water on its own would not be able to exist in its liquid form on Mars, however a high salt content prevents the water from freezing except at extremely low temperatures – this is why roads get salted in the winter.

Future: Apparently the biggest problem of getting to the water will be trying not to contaminate it with bacteria from Earth, as earth contains a wide variety of bacteria that doesn’t require oxygen, or warm temperatures, and could happily flourish with a bit of damp soil.

Source: GIF from Nasa, info from The Guardian, The Atlantic, IFL Science, and Gawker.

DNA Barcoding Basics

The Sixth International Barcode of Life (held at the University of Guelph) has just wrapped up and the abstracts and information gathered are being spread all over the internet for professionals and enthusiastic amateurs alike. For those who are not obsessed with the sheer world of awesome inherit in the topic of genetics, DNA Barcoding was an idea created by Paul Herbert as a way to identify species using DNA. This might seem like a no-bainer but in reality comparing the entire DNA of one individual against another’s is time consuming and expensive. The possibilities of being able to identify species through comparison of a small,  specific genetic area (though those areas are different in plants and animals) exploded onto the scene in a big way. Canadians led the charge into a new area of genetics and biotechnology that is still being enthusiastically pursued. The idea is to use the same genetic area of every living being as a point of comparison. To that end, a lot of the work done so far has involved creating large databases with as many barcodes as possible. Some of these archives are used for medical work, others for conservation, along with a whole host of other interesting projects.

Below is a longer run-down on DNA Barcoding 101:

DNA Representation  -Andy Leppard

DNA Representation -Andy Leppard

Continue reading

Environmental Careers Panel

Yesterday the Conservation Council of Ontario held an Environmental Careers Discussion Panel. Roughly 40 people, ranging from students to established professionals gathered to listen to four panelists give advice on how to get into and stay within an environmental career. While my main goal is to eventually have a career in science communication, the environmental subculture has a lot of appeal. The science behind conservation can be biological, geological, technological and everything in between.

Indeed, one of the messages I took away from the discussion was to be flexible. Just because your current position is not meant to be environmental, does not mean you cannot introduce environmentalism into it. Whether it’s as small as introducing composting to your office building to using your position as a program coordinator to focus on sustainable initiatives.

Another take away message was to do what you can outside of the professional sphere. If you are interested in environmentalism, volunteer with a society that promotes action locally. If you are interested in communication, get online and start blogging.  Put yourself out there, and be bold.

99864437_bcb30b823b_m (1)

Visual Storytelling

Today I was thinking about visual storytelling, prompted by a tweet about Debbie Millman’s class on that topic. People who are drawn to science, or to certain aspects of science, usually don’t need help finding their way to interesting or new research. Others need more of a push. Infographics can be immensely useful ways of describing information but it goes beyond that. Art can move people and can be used to direct attention to scientific subjects. The Art of Saving a Life, for example, is a collection of beautiful works of art from all mediums that tell the story of vaccination and immunization. Even without further context, these images speak for themselves, potentially reaching people in a way the tired, repetitive arguments don’t.

Scatter Brain Starts

Welcome to Scatter Brain!

I’m a science communicator, occasional freelancer and as of right now a blogger. This project is an attempt to branch off from my usual approach of bombarding people I know with new, interesting, or unbelievable science and instead try sharing it with the vast masses of the internet. It’ll also be a dumping ground for interesting stories I want to keep up with or come back to.