July 7, 2014 6:30 pm
Updated: July 7, 2014 10:09 pm

How much sewage is in Lake Ontario? The city doesn’t have to say


Watch above: Environmentalists launch legal submission over Toronto’s raw sewage. Jackson Proskow reports. 

TORONTO –Raw sewage flows into Lake Ontario and the city doesn’t have to tell the public.

One water advocacy group is hoping to get the city to change that.

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“There’s two reasons it’s important: one is for health – recreational water users know that there is sewage in the water and they can take precaution,” Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s Mark Mattson said in an interview Monday.

“But secondly, it’s important that the people of the city know there’s a problem.”

During the widespread flooding of Toronto on July 8, 2013, when close to 120 mm of rain fell in the span of a few hours, more than 1 billion litres of raw sewage flowed into Lake Ontario.

The city, in some areas, uses old combined sewer overflows: On one side of the pipe is raw sewage that flows to a treatment plant; on the other is stormwater rushing towards Lake Ontario.

The two streams are separated by a divider but heavy rain can sometimes fill the space above the divider, allowing sewage and stormwater to mix.

The city tracks the leaks and reports them to the province but doesn’t make the information public.

Kingston and Ottawa both release information about raw sewage leaks. So does New York State.

READ MORE: Jackson Proskow travelled across the country to discover just how much of what we flush down our drains ends up in rivers, lakes and oceans

So why the discrepancy? It’s a municipal decision.

Environment Minister Glen Murray said in an interview Monday cities should “absolutely” release the information.

But he wouldn’t say whether the province would force Toronto to do so.

“Every city and town is expected to meet standards and to meet their own plan,” he said.

The city does have a warning systems for Toronto’s beaches, letting recreational users know whether it’s safe to go in the water.

But Mattson says that warning system takes too long to update and only covers the city’s beaches.

“We only have ten beaches in Toronto,” he said. “It might cover two kilometres of waterfront. We have over 55 kilometres of waterfront, so anyone using the waterfront needs to know in those other areas whether the water is fit for recreational water use.”

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, the group behind the lawsuit, is a Toronto-based environmental advocacy group that focuses on Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes Basin.

The legal appeal was filed at 5 p.m. Monday. Global News has requested comment from the city but has not received a response.

The city can expect more heavy rain events as extreme weather becomes more frequent. Murray said the province should look at upgrading infrastructure so inadvertent overflow doesn’t happen.

“In five or ten years we’re going to be dealing with much more extreme events that are going to lead to more overflows in our sewage system and more pollutants going into our lake,” he said. “We have to start looking at new standards.”

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