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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

The new federal Environment Minister has granted Montreal permission to dump billions of litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River so the city can make critical repairs to its waste-water system.

Catherine McKenna, who is in Paris preparing for the United Nations climate-change summit that begins at the end of the month, broke from her mission to give the green light on what she admitted was a "far from ideal" decision on her sixth day in office.

Ms. McKenna imposed a handful of conditions on the sewage spill, including that the city improve water-quality monitoring, as well as cleanup and emergency response plans, and consult more with First Nations communities along the riverbank. The work, which involves pouring a billion litres of sewage into the river a day, is expected to last a week and must be completed by Dec. 5.

"I wish there were a magic bullet here, I wish there were other options," Ms. McKenna said in a conference call from Paris. "This release is far from ideal, but it is needed for the city of Montreal to perform critical maintenance on their infrastructure before winter.

"If we do not allow this to go ahead and there was an unplanned discharge, the long-term impact to flora and fauna could be significantly more."

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said Monday night the city will go ahead with its plan as soon as possible. It will outline the next steps on Tuesday.

The mayor welcomed the decision, calling it "science-based" and saying it was unlike the political manoeuvring of the previous federal government. "I have no problem with the conditions, and I have no problem with a postmortem," Mr. Coderre said. "It's positive and constructive."

The file, which had been before the federal government for 18 months, landed in Ms. McKenna's lap after it emerged as an issue in the recent election campaign. The former Conservative government suddenly put Montreal's plan on hold, citing concerns about fish habitat. It also named a panel to review the plan.

The burst of publicity caught the attention of First Nations groups and other communities along the river, who objected. While some environmentalists did, too, many experts in water and wildlife management said damage would be limited because of the immense water flow of the St. Lawrence. Most experts also said the city seemed to have no other choice.

Ottawa's report, released Friday, said the planned dump could cause harm, but an unplanned release triggered by a possible system failure if the sewage system breaks down would be more harmful. This dump will be the third time in eight years that Montreal has poured billions of litres of sewage into the river. The report suggested future mitigation efforts, and Ms. McKenna said the city will participate in an Environment Canada review to find better ways to handle future repairs.

"All I can say is I inherited this file on the first day. Things were not conducted in the way I would have hoped for," Ms. McKenna said. "We can do better and we will do better."

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