MONTREAL – While the federal environment minister says she found out only recently about Montreal’s plan to dump eight billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River, documents obtained by The Canadian Press show her department has known since 2014.
Leona Aglukkaq tweeted Wednesday that her office learned last week of the wastewater dump plan, which has become fodder in the federal election campaign and also been panned by environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
“Last week my office learned of Montreal’s plan to dump billions of litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence,” Aglukkaq tweeted. “This plan is concerning and we have done the responsible thing by exploring options to prevent it while we get more information.”
But documents show the federal Environment Department has been copied on correspondence since 2014, with details in full, including the expected start date for the work in October 2015.
That is in line with the version of events Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre gave earlier this week.
In another document, an Environment Canada official confirmed in an exchange last week the federal department was aware of the project in September 2014.
Ted Laking, a spokesman for Aglukkaq, later maintained she was only told last week.
“Notwithstanding that it is clear officials knew as early as September 2014 about the city of Montreal’s plans, the minister only learned of the plan last week,” Laking wrote in an email.
“Upon hearing of this plan the minister instructed Environment Canada to explore options to prevent this sewage dump while we receive further science-based information and analysis on the environmental impacts of what Montreal is planning.”
WATCH: Montreal sewage dump controversy
Laking said the immediate concern is ensuring the St. Lawrence is protected.
Coderre reiterated on Wednesday that his invitation to Environment Canada officials to meet with his administration by week’s end to discuss the matter remains on the table.
He said the initial plan was to streamline the approval process through an agreement between Quebec and Ottawa that would require just a single environmental assessment from the province. The agreement was never adopted.
The mayor said experts have warned the real danger could come if the work isn’t completed during a roughly 30-day period between mid-October and mid-November.
Coderre has accused the Conservatives of playing “cheap” politics after they called on the city to suspend the work, which is expected to start the day before the Oct. 19 election.
“Don’t play politics on the backs of Montrealers,” said the former Liberal MP.
The sewage dump became a federal campaign issue this week when Conservative candidate Denis Lebel weighed in, prompting accusations from Coderre the federal politician was slinging political sludge.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper entered the fray during a Saskatoon campaign stop.
“Obviously, a lot of concern has been expressed about this in Montreal and throughout Quebec and our ministers have already expressed their preoccupations,” Harper said. “We are encouraging the city to meet Environment Canada and to consider other possibilities to settle this matter.”
A day earlier, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said his government would never allow sewage to flow into the river. On Wednesday, Coderre suggested Mulcair explain a sewage dump that occurred in the fall of 2003.
Mulcair served as Quebec environment minister from April 2003 to February 2006.
“Who was minister at the time? Who gave the authorization? Ask the question,” Coderre told reporters.
In Quebec City, Premier Philippe Couillard reaffirmed support for Coderre’s plan, saying experts have gone over numerous scenarios and that he agrees with the mayor that, while unappealing, the short-term dump remains the best scenario.
“Mayor Coderre asked the federal representatives to come to the table right away and they should do this,” Couillard said. “If somebody has an idea of genius that has not been mentioned until now, fine.
“But until now each time we’ve looked at this and Mayor Coderre and his team have looked at this, we always come to the same conclusion.”
The provincial Environment Department approved the plan in February and Coderre has said it isn’t the first time the city has proceeded in this manner – similar dumps were done in 2003 and 2007 – with federal blessing.
The story has made the rounds, with Brockovich contributing to the debate on her Facebook page on Tuesday.
“Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre wants to take a big dump in the Saint Lawrence River,” wrote Brockovich, whose true story about taking down a major California power company despite a lack of any formal legal training was the subject of a Hollywood box-office smash in 2000.
She called the plan “ridiculous and shameful” and urged people to call Montreal city hall.
Asked about her comments, Coderre was terse.
“I loved the movie, Julia Roberts was extraordinary,” he replied.
The one-week sewage dump is aimed at relocating a snow chute that runs under a major downtown expressway that is being razed to build an urban boulevard.