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150 Years of Dirty Water

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150 years of dirty water

By Ulli Diemer

Seven News, April 17, 1984



The causes of pollution have not been removed. I am convinced that the citizens have never been supplied with pure water at all seasons of the year.

The above is from a report by Professor Laut Carpenter. His topic: Toronto’s drinking water, drawn from Lake Ontario. Two civil engineers, McAlpine and Tully, are scathing in evaluating and comparing sources of water: “how much more objectionable [are] the waters of Lake Ontario which are a natural reservoir for pollution of all kinds.”

If you think this is not news, you are right. Both quotes are from studies done for the City of Toronto in 1887. They in turn were a follow-up to a report done forty years before that, in 1847, by Thomas Keefer. Keefer’s plan for ending reliance on polluted Lake Ontario for drinking water shows us that some things have changed: his proposal was that Toronto take its water from the Don River.

The Don then, according to the historian and naturalist Charles Sauriol, was pictured as “a turbulent ‘mountain stream’ of Lake Simcoe water, swirling and churning its way through the East Don Valley with the rapidity of a spring freshet; the delight of the anglers, the fascination of hikers, the dream of dreamers.”

One suspects that today most dreamers would avoid the banks of the Don River for doing their dreaming. Many would think that only a dreamer would dare to imagine that the Don could ever again be a delight for Torontonians, a natural centrepiece for our urban setting.

And as for Lake Ontario — suffice it to say that the Don is one of the more modest contributors to the pollution of the lake among the dozens of similar rivers that discharge into it. Not to mention the sewers, the factories, the chemical plants, the legal and illegal dumps that ooze and seep their sludge toward the lake from which at least ten million Canadians and Americans take their water.

The facts are familiar enough in their outlines, although we regularly hear about yet another horror story, some new chemical or leak swirling into its place in the merry cesspool of poisons.

A quick sampling:

Record levels of dioxin are found in fish at Port Credit in April 1982. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals in existence — one two-hundredth of a drop can be fatal.

Toronto’s beaches are closed in 1983 after fecal coliform bacteria — associated with human and animal wastes — were found to be as much as 430 times in excess of permissible limits.

The International Joint Commission reports that the Toronto area is one of the most serious sources of toxic pollution in all the Great Lakes.

A study of white sucker fish living in Lake Ontario reveals that seventy per cent of them have cancer.

180,000 truckloads of fill are deposited on the Leslie Street Spit each year. Sampling has found that anywhere from 16 to over 50 per cent of the loads contain chemicals and metals that exceed provincial guidelines for dumping by open water. The guidelines are themselves under attack by environmentalists for being too lax. Nothing has been done to correct the problem — the only inspection for most trucks is done by a gatekeeper who peers into the trucks from a booth in a watchtower.

The Leslie Spit is also the site for an open disposal basin for harbour dredgeate containing, among other delights, lead, zinc, mercury, phosphorus and PCB’s. The basin is separated from the lake by a few yards of stone and landfill. Due east of it is the R.C. Hearn Water Filtration Plant; due west of it is the Toronto Island Water Filtration Plant. Most Torontonians get their drinking water from one of the two.

Not to worry, of course. Most of us drink the water, and most of us aren't dead of cancer or typhoid. Which in a sense is part of the problem. Were the pollutants things that killed numbers of us overnight, we would demand and insist that the pollution be stopped. But when the effect is merely that some hundreds of us will get cancer fifteen or perhaps twenty-five or thirty years down the road, and even then we'll never be sure whether it was the water, or the air, or the car exhaust, or the cigarettes or god knows what else that caused it — well, we just don’t worry about it in the same way. We can’t.

It is also the anonymity of the thing, the invisibility of it. Were a gentleman from the Hooker Chemical Company — for example — to come into our home and pour even a drop or two of dioxin or PCBs into our coffee or our kids’ juice, we would remonstrate with him most strenuously, no matter how confident his assurances that there was no conclusive evidence that it would harm us in any way. He would in fact be lucky to leave in one piece.

But it doesn't happen that way, although gentlemen from Hooker — and many other places — are quite literally pouring these and many other poisons into your coffee and your kids’ juice. They just do it in a more indirect, anonymous, and apparently socially acceptable way.

And we accept it, partly because we don’t think about it very much, and partly because we don’t know what to do about it.

Environmental groups are pressing to have more action taken, but they have as yet not succeeded in locating the kind of mass outrage that will force change. It is not yet a commonly held conviction that we have a right to clean water in our lakes and rivers, that we have a right and a need to see our natural environment treated for what it is: the thing that makes our lives possible.

No one has the right to dump chemicals and sewage into the environment on which we all depend, yet corporations and governments proceed on the assumption that polluters are a fact of life, that environmental damage is at best something that can be minimized, if it doesn't cost too much, or take too much time. With two million Canadians unemployed, factories shut down across the country, and $140 million available for a domed stadium, the financial and human resources can’t be found for a modern $20 million water filtration plant or for proper pollution abatement equipment for polluting factories.

For now, clean rivers and lakes are still the “dream of dreamers.”


Published in Seven News, April 17, 1984

See also: Contamination: The Poisonous Legacy of Ontario's Environmental Cutbacks


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