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Opinion It’s 2015: Why is raw sewage floating through Montreal?

Mark Mattson is an environmental lawyer and president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Krystyn Tully is the vice-president of the organization.

If you live near the river in Canada's second-largest city, there is raw sewage floating through your neighbourhood as you read this. The government knows it. You know it. Heck, people living on the other side of the world know it.

From the mayor of Montreal on up to the federal Minister of the Environment, no one wants to dump sewage into the St. Lawrence River. They say it is necessary to complete some infrastructure upgrades.

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Sewage is everything you flush down the toilet, everything you send down the drain and everything that flows from businesses and industries into the pipes under our city streets.

Sewage is bad for fish. The expert report commissioned by Environment Canada says as much: While they say that the effects of raw sewage are difficult to assess, they describe that treated wastewater has the potential to kill fish as far as 8-kilometres downstream. Contaminated sediment, they warn, can accumulate in fish spawning areas like the channel between Ile des Soeurs and Montréal. This might harm fish reproduction and development in the coming years.

The worst-case scenario would be that untreated wastewater compromises fish immune systems at the exact time there are infectious agents present in the environment.

Sewage is bad for people, too. It carries waterborne illnesses that pose a threat to public health. It contains chemicals and pharmaceuticals that creep into the drinking-water supply.

That's what is in the St. Lawrence River right now. Because it is so noxious, sewage pollution has never been legal in Canada. Environmental laws like the federal Fisheries Act promise to keep our waters swimmable, drinkable and fishable. Unfortunately, those laws were rarely enforced. That may be why few people blinked when regulatory rollbacks came in 2012, the darkest year in Canadian environmental history.

Changes to the Fisheries Act in 2012 spawned Montreal's sewage chaos. It's almost like no one understands the complicated mess of rules the Fisheries Act has become. The city said the federal government couldn't stop the dump, but the new Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations say otherwise. A straightforward application process was bypassed. A decision that should have been in the hands of an authorization officer ended up on the minister's desk.

That's why people are so outraged: Montreal's sewage dump, with its murky rules and harm to the river, offends everything that we hold dear.

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Canadians value clean water deeply. From coast to coast to coast, water shapes our regional and national identity. Canadians value fair play. From health care to hockey, we are drawn to institutions where everyone has a fair shot.

When word got out that Montreal would be dumping sewage – a lot of sewage – into the St. Lawrence, the public took note. It's a story that threatens our very identity. Are we a nation that puts raw sewage into our rivers?

It's 2015, and the answer is yes.

Officials say that the sewage dump isn't ideal. They say it is "less bad" than the alternatives. They say they don't have any other choice.

To be clear, the only people who truly have no choice are the residents of Montreal, who can't surf, boat or fish in their river this week. They are the ones sacrificing access to a natural, public resource because the people responsible for maintaining their infrastructure and enforcing the rules let them down.

Others say that "everyone is doing it." That makes it worse, not better.

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By rationalizing the sewage dump, we miss an opportunity to explore the real question on the public's mind: How do we get from where we are in 2015 – dumping sewage and saying we have no choice – to the swimmable, drinkable, fishable country we want to be?

It's 2015, and we're dumping raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River. Let's not spend one more day defending a bad idea. Let's aim higher.

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