Montreal begins major sewage dump into St Lawrence River

Action prompts outrage from cities downstream worried about raw sewage in water

A sign stating “Don’t touch the water” in French  near the St Lawrence river with the city of Montreal  in the background, November 11th, 2015. Photograph: Christinne Muschi/Reuters

A sign stating “Don’t touch the water” in French near the St Lawrence river with the city of Montreal in the background, November 11th, 2015. Photograph: Christinne Muschi/Reuters


Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city, began dumping untreated sewage into the St Lawrence River on Wednesday, angering environmentalists with a repair operation that could mean releasing as much as 8 billion litres (2.1 billion gallons) of wastewater into a major waterway.

The city has said the dumping, expected to last up to a week, is necessary while work is carried out to replace ageing parts of the waste treatment system that could create a greater environmental hazard if it were to unexpectedly break.

The action prompted outrage from cities and citizens downstream, worried about raw sewage in the water and the possibility of detritus such as condoms washing up on riverbanks. Even some parties situated upstream were concerned because of the precedent the action was setting.

‘Surprising, disgusting and outrageous’

“It’s surprising, disgusting and outrageous that the city of Montreal took this path, which is the least costly alternative for them,” said Lee Willbanks, from advocacy group Save the River, based in the riverside town of Clayton in New York state. “If Montreal does it, others municipalities might do the same.”

Signs advising against coming into contact with the water were posted on the banks of the river directly opposite Montreal’s main port area.

Despite the large size of the dumping, waste will likely be quickly diluted and swept away by the huge volume of water in the river.

So far no odours or physical signs of the operation were reported. It has generated the Twitter hashtag #flushgate.

In full-page ads in Quebec’s main newspapers on Wednesday, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre defended the operation as vital to protecting the river in the long run.

“As I have repeatedly said, if there were better options we would certainly have considered them,” he said. “But the reality is that the option we have chosen is the one with the least environmental impact.”

The river runs for almost 1,200km (745 miles) from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, and features migratory birds and a variety of whales.

It forms much of the border between New York state and the Canadian province of Ontario.

New York state, in the US, is well upstream of Montreal and so is very unlikely to see any effects from the dumping. Nevertheless, politicians there were worried about it.

‘Poor judgment’

“It shows poor judgment and it doesn’t just affect Canadian waters - we share this water with Canada, ” said Phil Reel, a legislator in New York’s Jefferson County, which borders the eastern edge of Lake Ontario and the head of the river. “It’s a resource vital to both communities.”

The operation was delayed until after Canada’s federal election in October. The new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, imposed extra conditions including monitoring, improved clean-up plans and regular reporting of water quality through mid-2016.

Still, there was consternation among some in the city of 1.6 million and surrounding areas.

Diapers, condoms and syringes

Parti Quebecois provincial legislator Mathieu Traversy said several municipalities feared their riverbanks would be polluted with “diapers, condoms and syringes”.

“Who will pay for the clean-up?” the Montreal Gazette quoted him as asking.

The city has claimed the dumping will have little effect on the river’s fish population and will not affect drinking water quality for residents.

Alexandre Joly, head of a non-profit group devoted to improving the quality of water in St Lawrence and access to it, called on Montreal residents to avoid putting some items such as condoms and tampons down the toilet during the wastewater dump.

“You have to remember that whatever you put in the toilet for the next week is going to go directly into the river,” Joly told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.