Although most people in the city probably had no idea at the time, the City of Cornwall released “raw sewage” into the St. Lawrence River four times in 2017, often for more than a day at a time — the longest being for 63 hours straight.

That’s according to data from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment obtained by the Georgian Bay Preservation Alliance. The environmental group is pushing for a new provincial requirement for municipalities to notify their residents whenever they release untreated sewage into nearby bodies of water.

Cornwall is not the only one in the region either. South Glengarry released sewage two times in 2007 as well; once into Riviere Baudette and once into the St. Lawrence. North Glengarry did so three times; twice into the Delisle River and once into the Garry River. It also happened once in North Dundas into the South Nation River.

The alliance’s spokesperson, Jon Telch, said their members hope that by giving people a glimpse of just how regularly it happens, the public would also want some system put in place to keep them informed.

“Our membership is very keen on to have some kind of reporting mechanism instituted in Ontario that would provide the public with a right to know what is going back into their water … we find it highly disturbing that in 2019, the public doesn’t have that right already,” said Telch. “We’ve been having conversations with the Province of Ontario about what a potential regulation would allow people to know what is happening, why it’s happening and for how long.”

Such public notification requirements are already commonplace in other jurisdictions, notes Telch, including across the river in New York state.

Although the term “raw sewage” invokes an image of untreated human excrement being pumped into the river, this is not what actually happened in Cornwall. The data from the Ministry of Environment noted every release into the river was caused by heavy rainfall, and the city’s environmental division manager Carl Goodwin said that means it was sewage from Cornwall’s storm sewers that was released into the river.

“It’s mostly rainwater with some sewage built-in. But the regulations in Ontario require us to define that as untreated sewage as well. It’s not ‘rainwater,’ it’s ‘sewage,’” he explained.

Municipalities such as Cornwall have been gradually phasing out shared sewers where human waste and runoff from storm drains end up in the same pipes for more than 20 years and installing separated sewers where the two are kept apart instead. So far, Cornwall has converted roughly 95 per cent of its sewers, even though the city only makes the change when it is doing road replacements for cost efficiency.

As for what the impact the storm sewage has on the river, Goodwin notes that the St. Lawrence River Institute does that kind of long-term monitoring, but from what he has heard the impact is negligible at best.

Goodwin said doesn’t know when the last time the city would have allowed raw sewage from a separated sewer into the river, but believes it must have been a long time ago. For it to happen today, however, would take nothing short of a disaster capable of overwhelming Cornwall’s water treatment plant.

“We have a lot of redundancy and a ton of extra capacity (at the water treatment plant,)” he said. “Right now, it would be highly unlikely unless there was a major emergency that creates a whole bunch of water, or if lightning struck the treatment plant. The risk is so low, it would have to be one of those weird, imaginative disasters.”

When asked about the Georgian Bay Preservation Alliance’s call for a public notification requirement whenever cities release untreated sewage into the environment, Goodwin said it was “not a bad idea” and one that would be easy to implement. The city is already required to notify the Ministry of the Environment within 24 hours, and said it would be a simple thing to have that data released publicly.

“It might be worthwhile thinking about in 2019,” he said. “We already have the data, so it’s not like it would require putting new equipment in place. If residents are interested, we could get it to them fairly easily, and they can use it to understand, make decisions or ask questions”

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Georgian Bay Preservation Alliance


Georgian Bay Preservation Alliance