8 billion litres of sewer sh*t coming right up, Montreal


News that the City of Montreal was getting ready to dump 8 billion (8 billion! You read that right…) litres of untreated waste water into the St. Lawrence River left me – as I’m sure it did you – with a grossed-out reaction that can only be best summed up by my favourite go-to meme.

WTF face

We’re talking untreated sewage here. A fancy word for fecal matter and urine and what comes out of septic tanks. (I sincerely hope you’re not eating while reading this.)

The initial outrage was so great when the report was leaked to the public that it forced the city to put their plans on hold until further consultations. This morning, however, they seem to be satisfied with the information they have received, because it’s now been confirmed that they are going ahead with it.

I incredulously thought to myself: “How can this be a solution in this day and age when we know the potential damage untreated sewer water can do to our ecosystem and our health?” It just didn’t make sense.

As a long-time paddler in the Lachine Canal, I’ve become accustomed to the occasional closures of the canal the minute it rains too much and the city’s badly maintained and crumbling infrastructure bogs down and is unable to handle the overflow. It gets dumped in the canal and Parks Canada promptly advises us not to paddle in the canal for the next few days. It’s annoying because it renders the canal unusable to us and each time it makes us question the quality of the water we are coming into direct contact with on a regular basis. Sure, we don’t swim in it, but it splashes on our faces, our body, our clothes, and on hot days we throw it on us to cool down. Because, on the surface it looks clean, but there’s a running joke amongst paddlers that it’s only a matter of time before one of is glowing in the dark from the industrial waste on the bottom of the canal and all the crap that occasionally flows in from the pipes. I try not to think about it too much when I’m on the water, but it’s always on the back of my mind.

According to a CBC report, Pierre Desrochers, the chairman of the city’s executive committee, said at a news conference this morning that emptying a major sewer interceptor into the river is the only viable option for construction work that needs to be done.

“After re-examining the situation, our administration has concluded that it’s inevitable that we have to close the interceptor, even if it means diverting the wastewater to the river,” said Desrochers.

“We studied all other alternatives, and this is the only option.”

Projet Montreal councillors expressed their outrage at this lack of options.

“It’s 2015. We should have a contingency plan, not fire out eight billion litres of untreated wastewater into the river,” Sauvé told CBC. “”I’m not a water expert, but it seems that there are other things we could do.”

Thing is, maybe there isn’t. The city’s hands may indeed be tied.

I spoke to Professor Sarah Dorner, who is an expert on source water protection issues and water quality and Canada Research Chair on Source Water Protection and works in association with Michèle Prévost at Ecole Polytechnique and she helped me better understand a decision I had a hard time wrapping my head around this morning.

“I spoke with the City yesterday about their plan. The challenge is that when we build sewer systems, we don’t build a duplicate sewer system in case we need to close a section. It’s not like airplanes where you always have backup engines.

It’s rare to have to do this level of work on these interceptor sewers. These are the largest sewers in the system. For Montréal, this is only the 3rd time in the sewer’s history. When work has to be done, there isn’t another “backup engine” sewer. This is part of a major infrastructure project associated with the reconstruction of the Bonaventure autoroute. They are also taking advantage of this time to inspect the sewer because it will be emptied. That is an excellent idea because the riskiest spills are those that aren’t planned.

As terrible as the water along Montréal’s shoreline will be for the week of the spill, the environmental effects will largely be reversible. The most important risk would be for people having direct contact with the water along the shore. It is important that the City implement a communication plan to ensure that surfers, kayakers, fishers, don’t come into direct contact with the water during that time because infections from viruses, bacteria or protozoa could occur. In order to obtain the permit to discharge from the Environment Ministry, they demonstrated that they had a communication plan in place.

Put into the larger context of sustainable development, this spill represents only a small fraction of the City’s overall annual discharge. The goal of having clean, fishable and swimmable water around Montréal is best served by spending on permanent infrastructure that will benefit our community long term rather than expensive permanent infrastructure used only for a single week. From the environment’s perspective, this spill will only be a small blip on the radar. So yes, we’ll have to hold our noses for a week, but I’m reassured by the planned investments (at least 1.5 billion $) for more sustainable water infrastructure.

Montréal’s drinking water are located upstream of the planned discharges. Downstream intakes have a good distance between them and the planned spill. They will also be notified and can monitor the situation. They are also all equipped with disinfection processes. As I said above, the unplanned spills are the greatest concern for drinking water.”

This doesn’t mean I’m still not concerned by this decision, only that I somehow understand the whole “breaking eggs to make an omelette” decision we apparently are faced with at this point in the game. It’s unfortunate, but there may not be another – easier to stomach – solution at hand.

I am still concerned, though. Untreated sewage water has been proven to contain a host of toxic chemicals that can kill fish and threaten human health in the long run. Sewage contains hundreds of toxic chemicals dumped into the sewage system by households, businesses and industries. Even small amounts of the most hazardous chemicals found in sewage can cause irreparable harm to aquatic life.

While the explanations provided by Dorner serve to better clarify a decision I have great difficulty understanding, I’m not sure I now have more faith in the cleanliness and safety of our water after speaking to her.

To clarify, remember the city’s Big Splash event that aims to convince us how accessible and awesome our city’s waterways are?
Yeah… don’t count me being among those devil-may-care divers anytime soon. E-coli and shit are just not on my list of things I’m going out of my way to swim with.
  • larrilara

    Nice article! I find it equally frustrating that there isn’t a way around this, but it’s important to hear it in the context of the long term goals. Just to add (and I wish I had a Debbie Downer meme to go with it), a lot of the toxic chemicals that still worry you about untreated sewage aren’t treated currently by Montreal’s wastewater treatment plant (things like pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, etc…)

  • E Perr

    Except NO ONE has an alternative solution. Talk as always is dirt cheap.