Flushgate: where do we go from here?

Montreal's massive east-end water treatment plant
Montreal’s massive east-end water treatment plant


You can be forgiven for finding this whole affair rather annoying, though I will happily point out we’ve collectively never given as much of a shit about sewerage and sewage treatment as we do right now. Flushgate, as it’s come to be known, is single-handedly responsible for teaching Montrealers what the ‘Southwest Interceptor’ is, not to mention generating a very strong public reaction against the idea of dumping waste into the river.

So bully for us; we’ve collectively learned something interesting about urban planning (a notoriously ‘unsexy’ topic as the pundits will tell you) and have demonstrated, unequivocally, that we’re keen to de-pollute the waterways around the island. It’s Montreal’s dirty little secret – we’re generally of the mind the waterways around our island have been so terribly polluted by years of lax regulations and waterfront heavy industrial activity that we’ve shit the bed, so to speak, and ruined any chance at being able to go for a swim come summertime. Isn’t this why we don’t have any beaches…?

To recap the situation for anyone unaware: the City of Montreal wants to dump eight billion litres of untreated sewage directly into the Saint Lawrence River. Perhaps ‘want’ is the wrong word – the city argues it’s a necessity. But the city lacks the ‘sovereignty’ (if you will) to just up and do it, and so it consulted with both the provincial and federal governments.

The general consensus among environmental scientists is that, while it’s generally speaking not a good idea to dump raw sewage directly into the water supply (and we get nearly all of our drinking water from the river), Montreal lacks the infrastructure to do anything else given it needs to empty a sewage collector in order to execute necessary infrastructure work as part of the Bonaventure Expressway renovation project.

Three days before the federal election, then Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed a ministerial order cancelling the planned dump, so that an independent environmental assessment could be conducted to determine what if any effects this might have on fish reproduction around the island and downstream (and by the way, there’s nothing like being on verge of losing a federal election to get a chain-smoking Tory do-nothing cabinet member to suddenly take her job very seriously, but I digress). And so, even though Montreal’s assessment was that it was a necessary evil that wouldn’t ultimately do much harm to the local environment (and the provincial environment ministry agreed with that assessment), we nonetheless had to wait for Ottawa to confirm what was already known.

And as of the day of this writing Canada’s new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, has given Montreal a conditional green light to dump the waste. The conditions are principally that Montreal develop a contingency plan and increases both the quantity and quality of its environmental monitoring during the dump. The dump is set to commence in the evening of November 10th 2015.

An alternative solution, proposed by the environmental group Fondation rivières, argues that tanker ships should transport the waste and, conceivably dump it out in the Atlantic, where the waste would dissipate over a far larger area. I can’t imagine this could be done cheaply, and I don’t think there’s any port infrastructure designed to pump sewage onto tanker ships (because why?).

The waste, by the way, is mostly human in origin, and not industrial (which, as far as I know, is treated differently). So if the ‘tanker option’ were explored, someone would have unenviable job of cleaning out several tanker ships’ worth of human waste residue post-dump.

The Environment Canada report issued on November 6th indicated that if the dump takes place before the annual winter freezing of the river, then it will likely not have any particularly deleterious effect on local fish reproduction. Also, given the strength of the current, the waste likely won’t be concentrated at our island’s shoreline, but will be dispersed downstream.

Again, it’s far from ideal, but it won’t be an ecological disaster. Aside from these rare instances of raw sewage dumps (it’s happened twice before in the last 12 years), Montreal normally treats its sewage, and is one of the few major North American cities to do so. And of the wastewater treatment engineers who have been consulted (or otherwise have commented) on this issue, it seems that the immense volume of the Saint Lawrence River, in addition to the speed of the current, will pretty much ensure the waste water is diluted to the point it will be harmless. Dilution, as they say, is the solution.

Though Environment Canada favours the dump as a necessary evil, they also want the city to start collecting hard data so that the impact can be fully measured. Apparently this was not already the case, something I find rather alarming. Perhaps I’m naive, but I assumed the city would have already been conducting environmental assessments of this type. Environment Canada also indicated that, if the dump is delayed and the infrastructure work is put off, it may lead to more dumps at less opportune times in the future as a result of a system rupture that would be very difficult to contain.

This is the expert opinion on the matter.

The question is, where do we go from here, and what can we do to ensure we’re not in this situation again in the future?

The problem is that our municipal administration all too often seems to wait until the last minute to even attempt solving a problem, and further never seems to propose long-term, forward-thinking solutions to long-standing environment concerns. If sewage collectors are old and there’s concern they will break, we may need to do more than just emergency repairs whenever a problem develops. Perhaps we need to build new collectors. If our sewage treatment plant is incapable of fully treating sewage after a heavy rainstorm, or if it lacks the capacity to handle an increased volume from time to time, shouldn’t we consider enlarging the existing treatment facility, or building a new one altogether? And if our existing treatment facilities aren’t sophisticated enough to break down the chemicals found in human waste – the pharmaceutical residue we know is wreaking havoc on fish reproduction – then isn’t it time to invest in new technologies and new systems to better treat our waste?

And do we really have to wait for the province or federal government to intervene? Shouldn’t we be able to judge the local situation by ourselves? Shouldn’t we have strong local leadership on issues of importance to the local population?

Montreal may have North America’s largest wastewater treatment plant (third largest in the world, apparently), but it has only ever offered a basic level of treatment, whereas other cities with smaller treatment plants can do a better job of truly purifying wastewater. Having a large capacity system is certainly a step in the right direction, now we need to invest in upgrades and improvements. It isn’t an appealing topic of conversation and politically-speaking is basically valueless – no one remembers the mayor who poured public money into improving the sewerage system, it seems.

But Denis Coderre should take note: whereas not everyone in our city will benefit from a professional baseball team (or even be able to afford the tickets), everyone – literally everyone in Montreal shits at least once a day, and it’s toxic human shit that’s both closed all of our beaches and made fishing strictly ‘catch and release’.

A city on an island should provide access to a clean shore and waterways for the benefit of all citizens.