The Conservative government has put a temporary halt to Montreal's plan to dump eight billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River as the city's repair plans collides with the final days of the federal election campaign.
Ottawa wants an independent expert to review the effect on fish of the city's plan to wash sewage into the river for about a week while vital repairs are done to the city's main sewage-collection network. It's not immediately clear how long the analysis might delay the work scheduled for Oct. 18 – one day before the federal election.
"We think the present situation requires an independent analysis," said Denis Lebel, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant. "A lot of people are worried."
Montreal, like most Canadian cities, occasionally dumps raw sewage into a nearby waterway when the system is down for repairs or overwhelmed by rain or melting snow. The city has undertaken similar dumps under the Conservative government without interference.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said Environment Canada told him it's the first time since 1977 the environment minister has intervened to stop a sewage spill. Mr. Coderre also had an e-mail from a senior environment official who signed off on Montreal's plan in early October.
"It's irresponsible, unjustified, against the interests of Montrealers and the interests of the river," Mr. Coderre said. "Will they do the same for Victoria and Toronto? They are playing electoral politics on the backs of Montrealers."
One expert who has examined the city's plan says Mr. Coderre is right. "The real message here is you shouldn't plan work like this during a federal election campaign," said Sarah Dorner, a professor who specializes in water quality at the Polytechnic School of Montreal's engineering faculty.
Prof. Dorner said the city and province have done their homework and the planned maintenance is vital to the functioning of the system. She scoffed at the notion more study is needed on the impact of sewage on the St. Lawrence. "The St. Lawrence River is one of the most studied bodies of water on the planet. Environment Canada has the information from its own experts."
Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said the department had not signed off on the Montreal plan but simply informed Mr. Coderre that the information the city submitted would be sufficient for further evaluation.
Mr. Johnson also pointed out Environment Canada has taken enforcement action against several municipalities at fault for sewage discharges in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines have been levied against Vancouver, Edmonton and the town of Ponoka, Alta., for dumping sewage and contravening the Fisheries Act. Ottawa has also ordered Charlottetown to stop outflows that repeatedly closed shellfish harvesting.
A host of experts including biologists and water-quality experts have said while such a sewage dump is far from ideal, the massive flow of the St. Lawrence River will prevent any lasting ecological damage from the unpleasant outflow.
What's more troublesome, most experts say, is that billions of dollars in investment are needed to improve Canadian sewage systems and further reduce harm to the country's large systems of lakes and rivers. Cities such as Toronto, Windsor, Ont., and Winnipeg routinely dump raw sewage into their nearby waterways. Victoria sends all of it into the Pacific Ocean untreated.