As canoes were pushed into the Don River last Sunday in the annual "Paddle The Don" fundraiser for the Conservation Foundation of Greater Toronto, participants were warned: any sign of lightning and you will be pulled from the river. One more thing to worry about for paddlers heading onto one of Canada's most degraded and polluted rivers. Surprisingly, there were no words of caution to avoid touching the water or to wash up before eating at the post-paddle BBQ. The state of environmental regulation in Canada means the degradation and dangers of polluted urban rivers like the Don are almost always taken for granted.
Despite the amazing work of thousands of volunteers and organizations like the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, the Toronto Conservation Fund, the Friends of the Don, the Charles Sauriol Dinner, and countless other groups, the Don River still is a national embarrassment. Running through the heart of Canada's largest city into Lake Ontario, which provides drinking water for millions of people, the river remains a toxic stew. Pipes vent mixtures of street run-off and sewage into the river year-round without filters, sediment ponds or containment controls. Old landfills leach metals, hydrocarbons and toxic ammonia from the river’s banks. Garbage and street sweepings float in the eddies and pile up on the gravel shoals. Partially treated sewage, railway yard overflows, salt laden snow melt, and who knows what else from old pipes taint the water black. Most of this pollution goes on without control permits, despite the law in Ontario that prevents anyone from discharging a contaminant into the natural environment, and the Canadian Fisheries Act that prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances into water frequented by fish.
Unfortunately, the Don River is not an isolated case or unique to large cities. It is instead emblematic of communities with poor environmental processes and little or no environmental law enforcement. Without tough policing, our urban rivers become dangerous places. Signs go up prohibiting swimming and fishing. The fish, birds, paddlers, and people the laws are meant to protect end up as the victims of unlawful pollution.
The argument that society cannot afford the cost of clean water is untrue. Billions in government subsidies go to energy stakeholders for carbon sequestration, nuclear power, dams, oil and gas wells, and advertising campaigns urging citizens to reduce, re-use and recycle. Meanwhile, billions are cut from public services that do not have the funding to properly treat and prevent discharges of sewage, stormwater and other pollutants. Laws meant to force polluters to clean-up are are replaced with self-regulation, stakeholder consensus building, and professional lobbying. The diminishment of our democratic processes is turning public rights to swim, drink, and fish into corporate privileges to pollute. Unfortunately, money, politics, and influence are dictating who gets the short end of the environmental stick.
The dedicated and committed paddlers on the Don River last week, and the organizers and volunteers who make this great event happen every year, still cling to the hope that the Don River will be restored. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, too, believes a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future is possible through a renewed respect for environmental law. However, if we leave the future of the Don River to the good will of stakeholders or good samaritans in government, the chance of safely paddling the Don River is about as likely as being struck by lightening.
Listen to Living at the Barricades:
In our final full-length episode of the Winter 2010 broadcast season, Waterkeeper takes you to Moncton, New Brunswick. We celebrate the opening of the causeway gates on the famed Petitcodiac Riverkeeper with our friends. The show is packed full of interviews, sounds, speeches, and audio from the causeway celebration.
Music in this show
Drumming and chanting recorded live at the river ceremony
Petit Codiac by Zachary Richard, from the Petitcodiac Riverkeeper benefit CD
Moncton Hellraisers by Dave Bidini & The Scribbled Out Man, from the Swim Drink Fish Music Club