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Montreal says if sewage isn’t dumped into the St. Lawrence River, the treatment plant can be damaged and more waste will end up in the river.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For millions of Canadians, the whoosh of the flushing toilet sends a little of life's unpleasantness far out of sight and way out of mind.

If people give sewage any thought, many imagine waste disappears into a hermetically sealed network of tubes running toward a magical plant where repugnant matter is transformed into benign water and returned to lakes, rivers and oceans where fish and fauna thrive.

The story is fiction, and a controversy in Montreal has once again exposed the truth: Major North American cities routinely dump billions of litres of sewage into rivers, lakes and oceans due to emergency, expediency and lack of alternatives. Doing otherwise would require tens of billions of dollars in new infrastructure.

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One-third of the main sewage line that rings the Island of Montreal is in dire need of renovation and the city says it must send up to eight billion litres of raw sewage directly into the St. Lawrence River on Oct. 18 so the work can be done.

If the work isn't done, the city and most experts seem to agree, equipment will break, the treatment plant could be damaged and even more waste will end up in the river, but not before it risks backing up catastrophically into city streets and homes.

Necessity is no solace to downriver communities as large as Trois-Rivières and as small as Odanak, an Abenaki village where the river widens into Lac Saint-Pierre, which have demanded the job be halted. "Lac Saint-Pierre is our pantry," said Abenaki councillor Alexis Wawanolath, noting fishing and hunting season is still on for them.

Such genuine concern combined with increasing environmental awareness and federal election campaign gamesmanship have created a unique ecosystem for controversy.

In mid-campaign, the Conservative government objected to the spill despite having the file in hand for 13 months and having looked the other way when similar discharges have occurred.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair proclaimed he would never allow such environmental degradation. In fact, he did not stop Montreal from conducting a similar dump in 2003 when he was Quebec environment minister.

Current provincial Liberal Environment Minister David Heurtel warned ominously that failure to fix the sewage system could put Montreal's water supply at risk. He then retracted that, saying he misspoke.

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U.S. Senator Charles Schumer demanded Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency intervene with Ottawa to stop the Montreal dump. An EPA official replied it has no jurisdiction in Canada. The agency could have also mentioned that Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee routinely dump billions of litres of raw sewage into the Great Lakes system.

The confusion and political games point to how such discharges – planned and unplanned– occur regularly in North America, and are usually handled by bureaucrats. with little public notice or political involvement until a local beach is closed, someone complains about the smell or environmentalists release reports.

Biologist Pierre Dumont, one of the critics of Montreal's plan, says the problem is not so much this particular dump: Like most scientists who have weighed in, he said the sewage outflow is a drop in the mighty St. Lawrence.

More worrisome, he said, is how casually governments accept sewage pollution. Letting sewage flow into the local river, lake or ocean is always the solution to a heavy rain, a break in the system or a simple need for maintenance.

"All along the St. Lawrence are signs of trouble," Mr. Dumont said. "There are poor-quality red lights in Lac St-Pierre [a widening along the St. Lawrence]. There are low oxygen levels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There are canaries in the coal mine.At a certain point it's enough and we have to stop polluting the St. Lawrence."

Victoria is Canada's most infamous example of municipal indifference, dumping all of its raw sewage – 130 million litres daily – directly into the Juan de Fuca Strait. Cities such as Winnipeg, Windsor and Toronto all have occasional raw-sewage overflows. Halifax finally got a treatment plant in 2008 and St. John's finally turned off a major raw-sewage outlet into its harbour earlier this year.

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With their smaller waterways and numerous downstream neighbours, Calgary and Edmonton stand as rare shining lights in Canada with full systems that have earned A-ratings from environmental groups.

Montreal is more typical of older, bigger cities and will soon add a modern system to eliminate hormones, heavy metals and pharmaceuticals from sewage, layering it on a basic 30-year-old primary treatment plant, which itself is fed by broken-down mains and conduits, some made of 130-year-old brick and wood.

"These are layered complex systems that took decades to build up. You can't just build a parallel or backup system," said Sarah Dorner, a professor who specializes in water quality at the École Polytechnique de Montréal engineering faculty. "The wastewater has to go somewhere because the bottom line is you can't stop production."

With a report from Associated Press

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