ON A RAINY June afternoon, Alan DeSousa, the Montreal city councillor responsible for the environment, is in emergency mode. “We’re having a crisis,” he says. It’s been raining since 4 a.m., and Montreal’s crumbling sewer system has overflowed again. DeSousa is helping coordinate the city’s response while fielding angry calls from residents with flooded basements.
Rain only compounds the city’s chronic water woes. The Sierra Legal Defence Fund sewage report card gave Montreal an F-the second-worst grade in the country after Victoria. The city annually discharges a staggering 900 billion litres of sewage into the St. Lawrence River. That’s more than double the average of all 22 cities surveyed. Sewage gets only a minimal primary level of treatment to reduce organic material and suspended solids. The periodic basement flooding indicates another problem: two-thirds of the city’s network consists of combined sewers, in which stormwater backs up into the same pipes as sewage, overflowing some 3.6 billion litres of raw effluent into the St. Lawrence each year.
Montreal officials vigorously dispute the F grade. Richard Fontaine, director of Montreal’s sewage treatment plant, says the city does better than the Canadian average on some measures, noting that only 0.4 per cent of its sewage actually escapes untreated into the river. And he says Montreal encourages businesses to perform tertiary treatment of industrial waste.
But 75 km downstream, Olivar Gravel is not reassured. He’s mayor of St-Joseph-de-Sorel, a picturesque town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, where the river’s flow slows in the shallow waters, causing a buildup of fecal contamination. Swimming is unsafe for as much as half of every summer. “Someone in a boat or windsurfing must not fall in,” he says.
Still, Gravel notes that things are better than 20 years ago, before the province funded a $1.4-billion project to build Montreal’s treatment plant and interconnected the island’s vast underground sewer network. But Luc Bergeron, monitoring the Montreal portion of the St. Lawrence for a provincial-federal environmental committee, says more must be done if Montrealers are to enjoy their river as they did before the 1950s, when contamination closed a dozen public beaches. So far, only three have been re-opened.
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