Where were you on July 8, 2013?
If you were in the Greater Toronto Area you’ll remember the torrential rainstorm. It smashed historical records, flooded city roads, and left commuters stranded in cars and trains.
The July 8th flood was an extreme example of something that happens too often. Heavy rains overwhelm our treatment plants so sewage is diverted into Lake Ontario. Major overflows happen once or twice a month in Toronto. Smaller spills from individual pipes happen virtually every day.
This sewage pollution takes a toll on the environment and poses a risk to everyone who touches the water. It can infect your eyes, ears, nose, throat. It can give you stomach disorders or rashes. It can even leave you with typhoid fever, hepatitis, or dysentery.
You might remember the news coverage the storm received. Waterkeeper was quoted in several stories stating that a billion litres of sewage bypassed treatment plants and ended up in Lake Ontario. The Toronto Star, National Post, CBC Metro Morning, CBC News, City News, Metro, and Global News covered our investigation.
Rather than alert the public to a possible health hazard, Toronto pooh-poohed Waterkeeper’s estimate that 1-billion litres of untreated sewage would have been discharged after the storm. So we started an investigation.
First, we visited locations along the Toronto waterfront to collect samples on July 12 and July 16. We found alarmingly high levels of bacteria in Humber River (near the sewage treatment plant) and at some beaches. We also found unusual background contamination that made analyzing our samples difficult.
Next, we went in search of bypass records from the city. We looked online, but didn’t find a single report, press release, or social media message.
Then we resorted to the Freedom of Information process, submitting a request to the City of Toronto on August 28, 2013. We asked for 4 things:
- All sewage treatment bypasses between June 1, 2013 and July 31, 2013;
- Dates that bypasses occurred;
- The duration of each bypass; and,
- The quantity of sewage bypassed during each event.
We waited. And we waited.
On October 28th, three months and 20 days after the massive storm, bypass information was released. We were shocked by what we read.
Official documents released by the City of Toronto confirm what Lake Ontario Waterkeeper stated the day of the flood: our city’s sewage treatment plants released more than 1-billion litres of untreated sewage into Lake Ontario.
It will take years to fix Toronto’s infrastructure problems. We know that. We also know that public health should be protected in the meantime. One of the first steps is better public reporting. We think it’s outrageous that you aren’t informed about sewage spills so that you can take steps to protect your health. Cities like Kingston have started alerting the public. Toronto, the biggest city in the country, should be able to do the same.
In an effort to ensure Toronto’s waterways are swimmable, drinkable, and fishable, Waterkeeper is going to focus more on sewage and stormwater pollution in 2014. This is one of the most serious issues affecting our lake and affecting public health, and we think we can do more.