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Canada puts Montreal sewage dump on hold

Adam W.


Canada’s federal government has ordered the city of Montreal to halt its plan to dump about 2 billion gallons of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the effect on the river would be “likely significant."

The city of Montreal was all ready to begin releasing the untreated waste water into the St. Lawrence on Sunday, despite widespread protests, including a petition from city residents with 90,000 signatures, and pleas to rethink the plan from New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro).

Wednesday afternoon, Aglukkaq said in a statement that the St. Lawrence River is one of Canada’s most important waterways. She said Montreal had failed to study the potential impacts of the discharge, and that scientists at Environment Canada could not ensure that the sewage would not be “acutely toxic."

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre says engineers found no alternative to the dumping as they complete a crucial replacement of a snowmelt collector. In her statement, Aglukkaq gave a nod to the bind the city says it’s in, saying she’ll launch an independent third party scientific review of the project “to ensure the best possible protection for the St. Lawrence.”

Environmentalists all along the St. Lawrence praised the decision. "It’s absolutely fantastic," said Lee Willbanks, who directs Save the River in Clayton. He says even though Montreal is far downriver from the Thousand Islands and the North Country, the sewage discharge would set a dangerous precedent everywhere.

"Any community potentially on our river or upstream from us who’s had an infrastructure spending deficit, who’s got challenging projects and looks for an easier way to solve a problem. You want the leading cities to lead, and that was a great concern for us."

The sewage dump has become a flash point in Canada’s federal election, which is just five days away. Mayor Coderre, a Liberal, accused Aglukkaq and fellow Conservative Denis Lebel of getting involved to win votes. Aglukkaq says she didn’t know about the plan until recently, but an investigation by The Canadian Press found her department has been aware of it since last year.

Even though the plan now appears to be on hold, the Montreal Gazette reports a group of Mohawk activists from nearby Kahnawake will blockade a rail line this morning in protest of the sewage dump.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.