With outrage stewing in Quebec over Montreal's plan to dump eight billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River on the eve of the federal election, the Conservative government has asked Mayor Denis Coderre to put off the release while Ottawa evaluates the environmental impact.
With the city and the province already having approved the spill plan, environmentalists, opposition politicians and many of the 460,000 Quebeckers who live immediately downstream turned to Ottawa to block to dump slated for Oct. 18 – one day before the federal election.
Instead, Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Denis Lebel, running for re-election, transmitted an appeal to Mr. Coderre to put the project on hold. "Can we hit pause on an issue that is raising such high emotions?" Mr. Lebel said. "There's no question of saying we disagree with the city today, but we want our experts to evaluate where we are. We are not presuming to know the answers at this point."
A combative mayor said Environment Canada has had the file since September, 2014, "and until now we've heard nothing." As recently as last week, the city asked the department if it had any questions, the mayor said.
"Now, we have one minister [Mr. Lebel] who is playing politics," Mr. Coderre said. "And we have a Minister of Environment [Leona Aglukkaq] who, as usual, is saying nothing."
The issue had other echoes on the federal election campaign. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau blamed sparse Conservative infrastructure spending for the Montreal problem. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said an NDP government would never allow such an intentional spill.
"My dear Tom, we have done all of our homework. There is no other way and it will not touch water-supply quality in other municipalities," said Mr. Coderre, a former federal Liberal cabinet minister. "If the federal government wants to give us lectures, I invite them to invest, then, billions of dollars required to meet their words."
Mr. Coderre, who has had a golden populist touch since becoming Montreal mayor, is clearly miserable dealing with the sewage issue. The city has a multipronged maintenance project on one of the three major sewer lines that cover the city, and water-quality experts appear to agree with him there is no other choice but to clear the line into the St. Lawrence to get the work done.
The city is dismantling a stretch of elevated freeway downtown called the Bonaventure, and replacing it with a surface road. A major snow dump and collection basin that sits under the highway is breaking down and must be rebuilt elsewhere. Parts of the conduit to the sewage filtration plant 30 kilometres away – a pipe ranging an incredible 1.8 metres to 5.4 metres in diameter and 35 metres underground in places – are falling apart, so the city is keeping it as empty as possible for a week to 10 days to do maintenance.
Sarah Dorner, a professor of source-water protection at the the Polytechnic School of Monrtreal's engineering faculty, said the city is stuck with no options. The sewage-collector conduit, called an "interceptor," is wide enough for two lanes of traffic in places and "took years to build and cannot be duplicated," she said. "At the same time, doing nothing is really not a good idea. Failures in the system could cause far greater damage."
Water-quality experts – both from the province and city, and others who work independently – say the massive waterflow from the St. Lawrence will quickly dilute the sewage. Water-treatment plants along the river should ensure drinking water remains safe, they say.
However, local mayors have complained about double standards where they can't even allow massive snowfalls to melt untreated into the St. Lawrence.
The issue also had repercussions in the National Assembly, where opposition politicians called for the resignation of Environment Minister David Heurtel, who ultimately approved the plan. He got a vote of confidence from Premier Philippe Couillard.