A small but noisy protest took place Tuesday evening on the Mercier Bridge just ahead of the beginning of a dump that will see 8 billion litres of sewage flow into the St. Lawrence River.

About a dozen demonstrators blocked Rte. 132 with a banner saying "Save our River," and waving Mohawk and Kahnawake flags.

A second small protest also took place in the Old Port of Montreal, where the organizer of a petition against the sewage dump tried to rally activists, admitting that it was too late for anything to change.

Valves closed overnight

The untreated wastewater started to flow as of 12:01 Wednesday morning and will continue for one week while construction crews repair a snowmelt collector that lies underneath the Bonaventure Expressway.

Four teams closed valves leading to the collector overnight, and construction on the structure should begin at midday Wednesday. 

"Nobody likes this, but even if it's an unpopular decision we have to shoulder our responsibilities," said Mayor Denis Coderre. 

"Environment Canada has confirmed what we knew from the start: a planned dump, even if it is not the ideal solution, is far better than having an unplanned dump," said Coderre. 

"Not doing anything, and risking an unplanned dump, could have catastrophic consequences for the river." 

On Monday Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said the federal government had approved the plan as long as the city followed certain conditions, namely transparency, cleanup measures, improving the emergency management system, and monitoring the water quality before, during and after the dump.

She also stressed the importance of working in collaboration with the local First Nations community in Kahnawake.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said the city had no problem agreeing to those conditions, and said the dump would begin in a matter of hours at 24 locations from the midpoint of the island to its eastern tip.

Most of the sewer outlets are 30 to 50 metres offshore, with the openings under water.



What goes down the drain

Coderre urged citizens of Montreal to remember that everything they flushed for the next week, and everything that went down a drain, would end up in the river. 

He asked Montrealers to be cautious to prevent to following items from being disposed through a drain:

  • Facial and baby wipes
  • Diapers, Cotton ear swabs
  • Hair, dental floss, tampons, condoms
  • Medications, cooking grease

"There will be an awareness campaign... with items delivered door-to-door," said Coderre. "It's all about protecting the river."

"I want to assure you that I understand the public's concerns and reactions raised by this decision. Know that this decision, as unpopular as it is, was taken in a responsible manner," said Coderre.

"If we could have avoided this choice, we would have done it, and if there had been better options, we would have adopted them."

Quebec's Environment Minister David Heurtel agreed with that assessment. 

"This is the only solution possible under the circumstances. Nobody's happy about it. We're putting in force a lot of mitigation measures and we're sure that these measures will limit the impact as much as possible," he said.

The Quebec government said it is prepared to review its programs and is open to helping Montreal avoid future dumps through more funding for infrastructure spending. It would not confirm a dollar amount.

The government also said cities can also use some of the money from the gas tax to improve wastewater treatment.

There were about 45,000 sewage dumps in Quebec – planned and unplanned –  in 2013.

Independent analysis

On Friday an independent panel commissioned by the Harper government delivered its analysis of Montreal's plan to allow the 8 billion litres of untreated wastewater into the river.

That report concluded there is little likelihood that the sewage would affect fish, so long as the work occurs before sections of the river freeze during winter. The analysis confirmed it is also better than having an unplanned, emergency dump take place.

Discussing his report, Daniel Cyr said fish currently living in the river would be affected, but that it would be worse if the dumping took place when fish were spawning,

"The risks to reproduction are minimal, but the immune system is definitely a risk. I mean the immune system has been shown with the treated effluent to be affected," said Cyr.

Repairs needed

The snowmelt collector near the Bonaventure Expressway needs to be repaired because sections of its supporting structure are falling off and flowing downstream into the main sewage treatment plant for half of the residents on the island.

The collector also lies too close to where the lowered Bonaventure Expressway will run.

Work to fix the collector cannot take place while water is flowing through the large pipes, and so about 18 months ago the city devised the plan to divert wastewater directly into the St. Lawrence at two dozen locations.

For the next week, while sewage is flowing into the river, crews will work around the clock to fix the collector and to replace the parts of the support structure that are falling off and flowing into the sewage treatment plant. 

The amount of wastewater being dumped equals about one per cent of the total volume of water that will flow through the river over the course of one week.