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Toronto Residents Deserve to Know When Sewage is Overflowing into Lake Ontario: Waterkeeper

Toronto residents should be alerted when sewage is being dumped into public waters, argues a legal request filed with the Ontario government  by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

The request was filed July 9, on the anniversary of last year’s widespread flooding, which resulted in 1.3 billion litres of sewage flowing into the Humber River and Lake Ontario over the course of 28 hours without residents being informed.

“We see it as a slam dunk,” Waterkeeper president Mark Mattson told DeSmog Canada. “We’ve never met anyone who thought it shouldn’t happen. If there’s a heat alert, you publish it. If there’s a smog alert, you publish it. It should be the same for sewage.”

The Ministry of the Environment has two months to respond to Waterkeeper’s request.

*Update on July 24: The Minister of the Environment Glen Murray accepted Waterkeepers application and now has until September 13 to decide whether or not to conduct a review. Murray told the Toronto Sun: “I feel that the public has the right to know when bypasses occur. Every city or town has a responsibility to notify the public when a bypass occurs. Municipalities have standards in law as well as their own plans in place that they need to follow.”

In 2013, 4.2 billion litres of sewage bypassed treatment plants and went straight into Toronto’s waterways.

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“There are 10 beaches in Toronto, 55 kilometres of waterfront. People have their dogs running around, people are paddling on the water,” Mattson said.

It took the Waterkeeper group four months and a Freedom of Information request to get information from the city on how much sewage was released during the flood.

“What’s the point of having the information in October when the information needs to be known when it happens?” Mattson said. 

Sewage is dumped directly into Toronto’s waterways about three times a month when the sewer system can’t handle the volume of liquids. Toronto residents paddle, sail and fish in areas where sewage bypasses are taking place, generally unaware that the water could make them sick.

Contaminated water can make people sick

Human contact with sewage-contaminated water can result in serious health concerns including eye, ear, nose and throat infections. If any contaminated water is consumed, it can cause stomach disorders and rashes, and even result in typhoid fever, hepatitis or dysentery.

“We feel like there’s a real disconnect between people and their water these days. They don’t have all the facts. There’s this tendency to think everything’s being taken care of,” Mattson said.  

The city of Kingston, Ont., has been alerting citizens when sewage overflows into waterways since 2006. That has brought a lot of pressure to deal with the antiquated sewage system, Mattson said.

“Here in Toronto, everyone just assumes it’s not that big a problem because they don’t have the information,” Mattson added.

And yet, every time there’s more than 25 millimetres of rain (last year’s storm saw 120 mm fall in just a few hours), the city’s aging pipes can’t handle the volume and sewage is flushed into waterways.

“It’s always best not to go swimming anywhere after it rains,” Mattson said.

Climate change, population growth exacerbating problem

The problem is only getting worse as the city grows and storms hit with higher frequency.

“We are having changes to our climate here, so we’re seeing more and more intensive rain than we have in the past,” Mattson said.

With safety in mind, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper created the SwimGuide app, which has been downloaded over 200,000 times and helps people find clean beaches.

The group is also part of Mountain Equipment Co-op’s Homewaters campaign, which is urging outdoor enthusiasts to sign up to bolster Waterkeeper’s legal push for public alerts every time sewage is spilled into local waters.

“I see this as a building block toward rebuilding swimmable, drinkable, fishable water in Canada,” Mattson said.  

This story was made possible through support from Mountain Equipment Co-op as part of its Homewaters campaign, which is dedicated to preserving Canada’s fresh water from coast to coast.

Image: Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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