MONTREAL — The federal government ordered a halt on Wednesday to the City of Montreal's plans to begin construction work that would see eight billion litres of raw sewage dumped into the St. Lawrence River.
Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel made the announcement on behalf of Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, saying she'd issued an interim order under the Fisheries Act to put the project on hold pending further scientific analysis.
"Based on limited data, Environment Canada cannot conclude whether or not the untreated waste water to be released will be acutely toxic,'' Lebel said.
"That said, the city has indicated there is a particular urgency attached to this project and, according to their evaluation, this is the only viable option available to them."
The city wants to close an interceptor - a large sewer used to feed wastewater to treatment plants - to do maintenance work and relocate a snow chute located underneath the Bonaventure Expressway, which the city is converting into an urban boulevard.
Montreal had planned to begin dumping the untreated wastewater into the river on Sunday and continue until Oct. 25. City officials have warned it's paramount the work be completed by mid-November.
Quebec's Environment Department has already signed off, but the federal government became hesitant in giving its approval as the plan became fodder in the current election campaign.
Lebel said Aglukkaq has decided an independent review is the best way to ensure the waterway isn't subject to irreparable environmental harm.
"The St. Lawrence River is one of Canada's most important waterways, acting as a home to several species of whales and fish while providing millions of Canadians their drinking water,'' he said, quoting his cabinet colleague's statement.
"Section 36 (3) of the Fisheries Act prohibits ''the deposit of deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish.' As such it is crucial that I exercise due diligence as minister of environment to ensure that every possible action is being undertaken to protect aquatic life within the St. Lawrence.``
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and the provincial government have maintained that, despite the optics, the plan remains the best option available in terms of time and cost.
Coderre has said previously it would cost at least $1 billion to divert the sewage and has said the same type of work, and sewage dump, was done twice in the past dozen years without issue.
Five experts at Montreal's Ecole polytechnique engineering school published a position paper on the proposed dump last week, suggesting the city was correct in its assertion there were no other viable options.
They say it is important to weigh the impact of such discharges against the dangers of neglecting maintenance or repair of critical infrastructure.
They noted the repair work, once complete, will limit sewage getting into the river.
"When spills are inevitable, we must limit the negative impacts," wrote the five.
Concordia University biology professor James Grant says a third such diversion of waste into the river should have all levels of government considering contingency plans for the future.
"Fundamentally, it's not a great idea, one shouldn't be dumping raw sewage into any waterway," Grant said.
"I guess nothing dire apparently happened, but maybe that should be the warning that our system doesn't have enough backup and we should be looking at the bigger issue _ we need better sewage treatment. Period."
On Tuesday night, a citizen petition with 90,000 names opposed to the project was presented to Coderre at a city council meeting.
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