Fair Policy or Unfair Pressure? Legislators Urge Canada to Hold Sewage While States Dump Theirs

Canadian Government puts a hold on Montreal’s temporary plan to discharge sewage into the St. Lawrence while New York and New Jersey continue to dump a 102 billion liter mix of raw sewage and storm water into the Hudson River and New York Harbor annually.

Peel Basin waste weir channel where Montreal raw sewage would be dumped. Photo: Andrew Edmund via UnderMontreal.com

Peel Basin waste weir channel where Montreal raw sewage would be dumped. Photo: Andrew Edmund via UnderMontreal.com

Ed. Note: Shane Rogers is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY, where he teaches courses on sustainable water resources management and wastewater engineering. ~ JC

As has been heavily reported in U.S. and Canadian news outlets, the City of Montreal, Canada was again ordered to halt its plan to dump approximately 8 billion liters of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River between October 18-25, 2015. Minister of the Environment, Canada said she has:

[I]nstructed Environment Canada to immediately have an expert independent scientific review of all information related to this project conducted [to] ensure the best possible protection for the St. Lawrence.

Although Aglukkaq denies prior knowledge of the sewage dump plan, documents show that Environment Canada has been fully aware of the plan since 2014.

Ponte St. Charles Collector, one of the sewer lines that will be emptied to facilitate work on the Riverside flow-regulating interceptor chamber for the southern interceptor sewer in Montreal, Quebec. Photo: Andrew Edmund via UnderMontreal.com

Ponte St. Charles Collector, one of the sewer lines that will be emptied to facilitate work on the Riverside flow-regulating interceptor chamber for the southern interceptor sewer in Montreal, Quebec. Photo: Andrew Edmund via UnderMontreal.com

The dumping of raw sewage was proposed to facilitate capital improvements of a major sewer interceptor. But when the plan came to public light in late September, there were immediate public outcries. An irate Erin Brockovich, the consumer advocate and environmental activist, posted on her FaceBook page:

This is pure TNT (Turds N Tampons)… as bad as it gets folks.

City of Montreal spokesperson, Philippe Sabourin disagreed:

The [St. Lawrence] river has a huge dilution capacity, with a flow rate of 6,000 to 7,000 cubic meters per second… It isn’t a major environmental concern.

Riverside flow-regulating chamber for the southern interceptor sewer in Montreal. The structure controls the amount of sewage entering the system from adjacent areas by diverting overflow, a mixture of raw sewage and runoff water during storm events, to the nearby St. Lawrence. Via UnderMontreal.com

Riverside flow-regulating chamber for the southern interceptor sewer in Montreal. The structure controls the amount of sewage entering the system from adjacent areas by diverting overflow, a mixture of raw sewage and runoff water during storm events, to the nearby St. Lawrence. Via UnderMontreal.com

View over the edge of the flow-regulating interceptor.

View over the edge of the flow-regulating interceptor.

The flow of the mighty St. Lawrence provides far greater dilution power than most American rivers that are also receiving waters for sewage. For example, the flow of the Hudson River in New York is 600 cubic meters per second, only one tenth of the St. Lawrence. Still, Canada’s plan has stirred international controversy and condemnation from U.S. officials, including some particularly vocal representatives from New York State, which borders 114 miles of the St. Lawrence River upstream of Montreal:

While I realize that the dumping will occur in Canadian waters, downstream from any U.S. communities, I am very concerned by the precedent Montreal is setting for other communities along the St. Lawrence and the lakes. – New York State Senator Patty Ritchie in a letter to the International Joint Commission

If this plan is allowed to move forward, this sewage could severely impact the river ecosystem and wildlife, and the St. Lawrence County tourism industry on which the North Country depends. – Charles Schumer, U.S. Senator from New York.

Senator Schumer urged the U.S. EPA to work with the U.S. Department of State and Canadian Government to devise an alternative plan. Yet, in a statement released by EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears, the agency declined to seek action, stating it had no jurisdiction over a matter that does not impact U.S. waters:

While EPA thinks it’s a really bad idea to discharge 8 billion liters — over 2 billion gallons — of untreated sewage into any water body, the EPA does not have any jurisdiction over this matter because these discharges will not have an impact on U.S. waters,

Habitat 67 (left) and the area of the St. Lawrence River that will be most affected by the planned Montreal sewage dump (right). According to Philippe Sabourin, City of Montreal, the St. Lawrence River has a huge dilution capacity and the dump will not be an environmental concern; however, the plan does pose a problem for sports fishermen, kayakers and surfers, especially behind Habitat 67. Photo: Cricu at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons. Map: Google Maps.

Habitat 67 (left) and the area of the St. Lawrence River that will be most affected by the planned Montreal sewage dump (right). According to Philippe Sabourin, City of Montreal, the St. Lawrence River has a huge dilution capacity and the dump will not be an environmental concern; however, the plan does pose a problem for sports fishermen, kayakers and surfers, especially behind Habitat 67. Photo: Cricu at the English language Wikipedia [GFDLCC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons. Map: Google Maps.

Meanwhile, each week, New York and New Jersey dump a 2 billion liter mix of raw sewage and storm water into the Hudson River and New York Harbor through combined sewer overflows — a total of 102 billion liters each year.

These raw sewage dumps cause significant environmental degradation, making waters in and around the city unsafe for human contact.

City of Montreal sewer system showing the primary interceptor lines and flow regulating structures for conveyance of raw sewage and strom water to the Jean-R Marcottee wastewater treatment plant, the third pargest treatment plant in the world. Wastewater treatment in Montreal has a long and troubled history; the current wastewater treatment plant was rated an “F-” by the Sierra Club in 200, only second to Victoria, which did not have a wastewater treatment plant in place at the time of the rating. Via UnderMontreal.com

City of Montreal sewer system showing the primary interceptor lines and flow regulating structures for conveyance of raw sewage and strom water to the Jean-R Marcottee wastewater treatment plant, the third pargest treatment plant in the world. Wastewater treatment in Montreal has a long and troubled history; the current wastewater treatment plant was rated an “F-” by the Sierra Club in 200, only second to Victoria, which did not have a wastewater treatment plant in place at the time of the rating. Via UnderMontreal.com

When will our New York representatives issue pleas for protection of the Hudson River’s ecosystem, wildlife, tourism industry and residents from raw sewage? Is the EPA unwilling to issue a statement on the Montreal Sewage dump for fear of calling attention to years of weak enforcement of the Clean Water Act in and around New York City and other cities under their jurisdiction? As pointed out by Les Perreaux of the Globe and Mail, Montreal:

Combined sewer overflow at the picturesque and popular79th Street Boat Basin, filming location for popular films such as You’ve Got Mail, featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Via Google Earth

Combined sewer overflow at the picturesque and popular79th Street Boat Basin, filming location for popular films such as You’ve Got Mail, featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Via Google Earth

The agency [U.S. EPA] could have also mentioned that Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee routinely dump billions of litres of raw sewage into the Great Lakes system.

More than 460 combined sewer overflows in New York City spill raw sewage into New York Harbor each year. Add to that more than40 on the New Jersey side of the harbor, plus an additional 163 in the lower Hudson River to Albany and the extent of the problem becomes clearer (or murkier?).

Sign posted at a combined sewer overflow in New York City to caution people not to swim, boat, or fish in the water during wet weather when raw sewage is discharged. Although raw sewage dumps are normal and accepted practice during rainfall, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection asks citizens to report any unacceptable discharge during DRY weather. Via New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Sign posted at a combined sewer overflow in New York City to caution people not to swim, boat, or fish in the water during wet weather when raw sewage is discharged. Although raw sewage dumps are normal and accepted practice during rainfall, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection asks citizens to report any unacceptable discharge during DRY weather. Via New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

New multibillion dollar Green and Gray Infrastructure plans for New York City are a step in the right direction, but there are questions whether these upgrades will be enough. Larry Levine of the Natural Resources Defense Council has called attention to the fact that these green and gray infrastructure upgrades will address only two fifths of the combined sewer overflow issue.

According to Levine, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has already taken steps to weaken Long Term Control Plans meant to close the gap, treating them as a paper exercise:

The first two parts of the agreement — the green and gray infrastructure the city committed to build — along with improved sewer system maintenance and reduced water demand, are projected to reduce annual sewage overflows by about 12 billion gallons per year. That still leaves 18 billion gallons.

Yet, in a classic diversionary move, our outrage over sewage dumping is directed towards our northern neighbors in Montreal, where city officials are rightfully confused by sudden outcries from politicians and regulatory agencies about a practice that has been a regular occurrence in the United States and Canada for decades.

A note on the following videos: In the first, the Gowanus Canal Superfund site suffers a combined sewage overflow in the wake of a tornado in Brooklyn. In the second, the intrepid Steve Duncan takes us on an underground tour through New York City sewers.