Canada’s new government just approved dumping raw sewage into the St. Lawrence river

The newly elected Canadian government, which has enchanted the world with its diverse cabinet and fresh outlook, has made its first controversial decision. On Monday (Nov. 8), the Liberal minister of environment, Catherine McKenna, approved Montreal’s plan to dump 8 billion liters of untreated sewage into the St. Lawrence River, which is home to endangered beluga whales.

“I wish there were a magic bullet here, I wish there were other options,” McKenna told reporters in a call from Paris, where she is attending the United Nations climate summit. “This release is far from ideal, but it is needed for the city of Montreal to perform critical maintenance on their infrastructure before winter.”

The city says it needs to release the sewage to perform long-delayed work on the sewer system, including moving an intake for melting snow.

The St. Lawrence River, which flows from Lake Ontario northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, borders the United States for 114 miles (183 km) in New York State. Charles Schumer, the US senator from New York, has tried to halt the discharge, but the US Environmental Protection Agency said it did not have authority in Canada.

The river is known for its rich wildlife, including endangered turtles, bald eagles and osprey, which could be threatened by the spill, environmental groups say, but it also provides drinking water to many Canadians. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre received a petition with 90,000 signatures last month opposing the discharge.

McKenna stipulated that the dumping, which was suspended by the previous government, is only allowed under certain conditions, which include monitoring the discharge and instituting a comprehensive clean-up plan. It must be carried out before Dec. 5. An independent panel of researchers said the planned dumping was a better than an accidental discharge caused by the city’s deteriorating sewage system.

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