ST. JOHN’S, NFLD., has many points of interest, none more unlikely than the sewage outfall at the foot of Temperance Street. Locals call it “the Outlet” or “the Bubble,” after the odorous ring of raw, green-brown sewage that wells up into St. John’s Harbour. It is a favoured spot for hundreds of hungry local and exotic seagulls, and for those who love them. “The St. John’s sewer outlet is famous among the gullwatching elite of North America and Europe,” says avid birder and columnist Bruce Mactavish. The gulls are drawn by “the rich and continuous supply of not fully processed byproducts of humanity,” he says delicately. Birders, even international tours, are drawn by the assured supply of black-headed and Kumlien’s gulls within easy view of the shore. “In the winter, one can sit in his or her car on Pier 17, listen to the radio while drinking a Tim Hortons,” says Mactavish. “Makes a nice lunch hour if your time is limited for birdwatching.”
The pier’s best birdwatching days are numbered. St. John’s first treatment plant is under construction, after years of the city choking the harbour with 120 million litres of raw effluent and stormwater a day. The $93-million facility, cost-shared by local, provincial and federal governments, will offer relatively rudimentary primary treatment when completed in 2007. Those who track the harbour’s health say it’s so polluted with heavy metals, bacteria and other wastes that some fish have liver disease and skin lesions. “That was frightening,” says Bill Stoyles, a past president of the St. John’s Harbour Atlantic Coastal Action Program, the group that led a decade-long fight for a cleanup. So foul is the water that Popular Science magazine last year listed Memorial University ecologists who sample the harbour as having the seventh worst job in science (the worst job: anal-wart researchers).
The plant is only a first step; primary treatment won’t remove chemicals and toxins, says Stoyles. The next stage is convincing the city and the public of the need for a source-control program, to police what gets dumped down drains and toilets. Meantime, Mactavish braces for the Bubble to burst in 2007. The ever-adaptable gulls will find food farther afield when sewage treatment begins, he says. As for birders, “I think we are all in denial. Winter birding in St. John’s will change forever.” And, with luck, so will the harbour.
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