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Stuff we ‘flush down the toilet’ ending up in Toronto Harbour, environmental group warns

An environmental group is sounding the alarm about the city’s main sewage and stormwater system after finding trash like condoms, sanitary wipes and tampons floating in Toronto harbour last month.

Mark Mattson,  an environmental lawyer and the founder of Swim Drink Fish — a volunteer group working to create swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water for everyone — told CBC Toronto he went to Ontario Place to check out the quality of the water the day after a large storm on July 24.

“We [had] been getting a lot of complaints about floatables … plastics, napkins, sanitary napkins, condoms, things people flush down the toilet,” he said.

“This whole area was covered.”

Mattson soon discovered that the debris had come from a pipe that occasionally dumps Toronto’s combined sewage and stormwater directly into Lake Ontario. A combined sewage overflow (CSO) occurs during heavy rainfall and, in addition to trash items, the discharge can contain harmful bacteria, pathogens, heavy metals, oils, and pesticides, according to the city’s website. 

Mark Mattson, stands next to the water at Ontario Place with the city in the background.
Mark Mattson, president of Swim Drink Fish, says the city’s outdated sewer overflow system is discharging sewage directly into Lake Ontario after large storms. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

The city has a handful of major projects in progress to help address the issue, but Mattson said he wants to see more communication with the public.

He pointed to Kingston, Ont. as an example. The municipality provides real-time monitoring of its pipes and informs residents when an overflow has occurred.

Letting the public in on what’s happening makes the problem more visible, Mattson said. “The public’s on the side of the utilities to clean up the lake. So just [give] them the information they need to help make this happen faster.”

According to the city, only 20 to 25 per cent of Toronto’s sewers are still on the combined system. The CSO outlet near Ontario Place is one of 94 left over from before an overhaul of Toronto’s sanitation system. 

Bill Shea, the director of water distribution and collection with the City of Toronto, told CBC News the discharge in the water on July 25 was caused by a maintenance project on the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel.

A mass of garbage floats near Ontario Place on July 25, the day after a large storm hit Toronto. Mark Mattson, an environmental lawyer, says the garbage came from the city’s outdated sewer overflow system. (Submitted by Mark Mattson/Swim Drink Fish)

This tunnel was built to collect water from CSOs to prevent it from being discharged directly into the lake, he said.

When Swim Drink Fish reported the debris in the water, the city agreed to put the maintenance project on hold until the end of swimming season. Work on the tunnel will continue during the winter months, Shea said. 

In addition to upgrades to the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, the city is in the middle of a $3-billion project to protect the waterfront from CSOs, he said.

The project involves an eastward extension of the Western Beaches tunnel and the construction of three large sewers in the city’s east end.

Gail Krantzberg, an engineering and public policy professor at McMaster University, told CBC Toronto that CSOs are still a huge issue when it comes to pollution in the Great Lakes.

“We need to start thinking about our wastewater and sewage infrastructure in a new way, through a new lens of a changing climate and severe weather events,” she said.

Gail Krantzberg, professor of engineering and public policy at McMaster University, says the changing climate is causing more severe storms, which in turn can cause more sewer overflows into Lake Ontario. (Submitted Gail Krantzberg)

Older municipalities on Lake Ontario initially installed infrastructure to address relatively infrequent severe storm events, she said.

Due to the changing climate, however, the kind of storms that produce CSOs are now happening much more frequently, Kratzberg said.

In addition to climate change, Mattson said areas with highly concentrated condo developments might be making the problem.worse.

Areas in the west end like Liberty Village are serviced by the combined sewer system, he says. 

Mattson wants the people who live in these areas to be extra mindful about the types of things they flush down the toilet.

“Don’t be flushing … condoms or needles or sanitary wipes down the toilet because they can end up in [the lake].”

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