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City spokesman Philippe Sabourin, right, looks at the mountain of snow at the Angrignon dump in Montreal on Feb. 14, 2018, in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz

Within sight of downtown Montreal and around the corner from a popular strip mall is a giant mass – 22 football fields long, 10 storeys high – that can initially be mistaken for the brown-and-grey-coloured mountain ranges in the southwestern United States.

The mass is not rock, however, but filthy snow tainted brown by exhaust fumes, car grease and other pollutants floating around the frozen metropolis.

It's one of 14 snow-dump sites dotted around the city, half of which are either full or near capacity due to the unusually high snowfall Montreal has so far received this winter.

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"We've almost reached our average snowfall for the entire season," said city spokesman Philippe Sabourin, who loves to talk about public works.

The City of Montreal had received 180 centimetres of snow as of mid-February. An average winter snowfall is about 190 centimetres by the end of March.

With half of Montreal’s 12 snow dump sites approaching capacity, the city is forced to open a new site to deal with this winter’s huge snowfall. A city spokesman says they’re preparing for more, as snow is forecasted through March. The Canadian Press

Sabourin said Montreal has so far collected 16 million cubic metres of snow – enough to fill 6,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Only four times in the past 40 years has Montreal received as much snow, he added.

In response, the city was granted special permission from the provincial government to open two extra dump sites, one of which is located by the disused and crumbling Blue Bonnets racetrack.

There is no other city on earth with the same population density as Montreal that has to manage as much snow, Sabourin said.

"We tried to make comparisons around the world – we have the most," he said.

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Just talking about the snow in Montreal is a full-time job.

Sabourin said for one TV station only, he's often called in to talk snow early in the morning and several times throughout the day.

On this particular mid-February afternoon, Sabourin is pre-recording a radio interview on the subject of enraged parents who've witnessed snow-clearing operations outside schools during pick-up and drop-off hours.

"We are conducting a rigorous analysis to ensure this doesn't continue," Sabourin tells the radio host. "The city takes this very seriously."

The politics of snow in Montreal are fierce.

"Everyone has their own strategy, their own opinion, about snow collection," said Sabourin.

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Jean-Francois Parenteau, the new councillor responsible for citizen services, learned quickly how seriously Montrealers take snow removal and de-icing.

"I get messages all the time on social media, people send me pictures of the snow at their home, asking why it isn't cleared yet," he said in an interview.

One of the most stressful parts of his job is deciding whether to launch a clean-up operation when the city receives five, six or seven centimetres and climatologists are predicting the temperature will likely warm up for a bit.

"Every time I say go, it's $15-million to $20-million per cleanup," Parenteau said.

If he sends out the crews and the snow melts, citizens are upset because he wasted money. But if he holds off, as he did several weeks ago, and the weather turns, Montrealers become incensed.

He wrongly assumed an upcoming bout of warm weather would melt a recent snowfall, and when temperatures dropped and the sidewalks turned into skating rinks, it became a multi-day scandal.

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"You have to be built pretty solid for the job," Parenteau said. "And we'll be better next year. But for people who aren't solid, the job could be quite heavy."

Snow-clearing operations in Montreal begin with trucks blasting obnoxious horns up and down residential streets early in the morning, alerting formerly sleeping citizens to move their vehicles.

Roughly 3,000 workers operating 2,200 machines can be on city roads after a big snowfall, clearing and salting 6,000 kilometres of sidewalks and 4,000 kilometres of road.

Thirty per cent of Montreal's collected snowfall gets dumped into large holes in the ground connected to the city's sewer system, where it is treated before being released into the St. Lawrence River.

"Before 1990 we used to dump it directly in the river," Sabourin said."Now we're more environmentally conscious."

Every snowblower is tagged with a GPS device, so the city knows where each machine is located at all times and citizens can use an application on their phone to monitor snow-clearing operations in real time.

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"We know the volume of each truck as they enter a dump site, we know where the snow came from and so we know in real time how much snow is being collected," said Sabourin. "Before 2015 we used punch cards."

Back at the dump site outside the strip mall, Sabourin is dwarfed by the mountain of brown, compacted snow, as city workers drive around showing off their snowblowers.

"The snow will be here until July," he said. "Maybe August."

Some statistics:

  • Every year, Montreal uses 150,000 tonnes of a mixture of salt, sand and rocks to use as an abrasive on the road system. It is stored in 30 garages across the city.
  • The city has 14 land dump sites and 16 sites where snow is dropped directly into the sewer system. Thirty per cent of collected snowfall goes into sewers, while the rest is dumped on land.
  • Montreal usually collects about 12 million cubic metres of snow every season. So far this year it has collected 16 million cubic metres.
  • Montreal budgeted about $164-million for the 2017-18 winter for snow-clearing operations. That’s about $1-million for every one centimetre of snow collected.
  • During the biggest snowfalls, there are 3,000 workers, 2,200 machines on the road at a time, not including about 200 tow trucks.
  • For the 2016-17 season, the city estimated it collected 14 million cubic tonnes of snow, equivalent to the volume of eight Olympic Stadiums.
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