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Montreal isn't the only city dumping raw sewage - Toronto does it, too

Last Updated Nov 12, 2015 at 5:15 pm EDT

A sign warning bathers the water is too polluted for swimming on the shore of Ashbridges Bay from the Toronto Medical Officer Of Health, the smoke stack across the Bay is the Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant. April 23, 2002 Photo by Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

The City of Montreal decided to dump eight billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River in on Wednesday at midnight, and people are not happy.

But it’s not just Montreal getting the dumps. Toronto has been dumping sewage into Lake Ontario for years, just differently.

When Toronto’s wastewater exceeds what our treatment plants can handle – like during a rainstorm – anything we flush away may go straight into the lake.

Just this summer, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change decided that the City of Toronto must start alerting residents when rainfall may cause water quality concerns and when sewage treatment plants are bypassing into Lake Ontario.

CityNews spoke with Krystyn Tully, Vice President of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, to better understand what Torontonians need to know about their water.


What is Toronto’s wastewater system all about?
KT: We have four wastewater treatment plants in Toronto. Two of them, Humber Plant and Ashbridges Bay Plant, bypass partially treated sewage into Lake Ontario.

Can you explain what ‘bypass’ actually is?
KT: Sure, when there is more wastewater in the system then the sewage treatment plants actually have the capacity to treat, they remove any solid materials or chunks and use chlorine to kill some bacteria which is then sent out into the lake.

What happens to the non-chunky stuff?
KT: Anything else that is in the water is not being treated.

How many times does this happen in Toronto?
KT: It really depends on how much rainfall there is but anywhere between 30 to 60 times a year.

So waste gets sent out into the lake how many times a week?
KT: About once a week in Toronto.

Hmmm, how much volume are we talking about?
KT: That fluctuates as well, so somewhere between two and six million cubic metres a year in Toronto.

What is the system to manage wastewater in Toronto households?
KT: Combined sewers is where the sewage from you house and storm water pipes are connected to each other under the ground, and when there is too much rain sewage in it, it overflows into the closest lake or river with no treatment whatsoever.

Swimming in this water must be out of the question?
KT: People should stay away from the water for 48 hours after any heavy rain or snow melt.

I know I shouldn’t put bacon grease down the sink but what else?
KT: Nothing else should really go down the toilet other than toilet paper. Flushable wipes are not actually flushable – they really clog the system. A lot of pharmaceuticals can’t be filtered out completely at the sewage treatment plants either.

So what about condoms and tampons or other items?
KT: They should not be flushed down either. The other one people are really interested in are micro-beads, those tiny plastic beads in face soap and toothpaste. They cannot be filtered out and can be eaten by fish.

What is the difference between our system and Montreal’s?
KT: Montreal, if you can imagine, is a sewage pipe that is never going to a sewage plant. They are diverting all the flow into the river while they do maintenance on the pipe.

How do people stay informed about the water?
KT: We were working to get The City of Toronto to alert the public when bypasses were happening. The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change ordered them to do it, but it hasn’t started yet and it has been three months.

Tully said that the alerts can be done through Twitter, similar to other weather alerts, and hopes to see them put in place very soon.