A stench rises from Montreal’s sewers, where used condoms, soiled sanitary napkins and other stomach-churning waste floats in the fetid brown water.
That same foul mess this week began finding its way into Montrealers’ water supply, after city officials began diverting one-third of the sewer’s contents into Canada’s St Lawrence River.
Officials on Wednesday began piping eight billion liters -- equal to about 3,200 Olympic swimming pools -- of raw sewage into the St Lawrence, one of the nation’s most iconic waterways and a source of drinking water for a large part of the country.
Authorities say the water diversion is a necessary part of a huge construction project currently underway to repair the aging sewer system.
But the diversion has angered many environmentally minded Canadians, who point out that the waterway is used not just for drinking water, but is the habitat for a variety of fish species and other wildlife.
“For 40 years, my boss has been fighting to clean up the river and they send us this,” said one private sector marine worker who spoke to AFP despite being prohibited by the Montreal government from talking to the press.
City elders say they have to dump the dirty water while they work to repair the massive pipe that would have carried it to a wastewater treatment plant.
On Wednesday they opened the valves in the sewer system for the Canadian metropolis, after first treating the wastewater with chemical agents to help neutralize it.
Officials say that the wastewater will be absorbed by the much larger river without any appreciable impact on wildlife or water quality. Environmental workers however are unconvinced.
So vile is this sewage-tainted brew that workers are required to don special water-proof garb to avoid skin contact.
A yellow raincoat, helmet and heavy rubber gloves are required when coming in contact with the water, despite assurances from Montreal’s mayor “that there is no danger for the environment.”
Meanwhile, along the length of the river, signs warn against contact with the water without first donning protective gear.
A few meters away, a duck paddles in muddy water.
“After drinking this water, it won’t live long,” says the worker, a specialist in marine protection.
The sewage diversion program, first announced in September as the federal election campaign was winding down, initially was blocked by the federal government in Ottawa.
Eventually it was approved by the new Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, although she said she continues to have nagging doubts.
“I’m worried that there might be an impact” on biodiversity of the St Lawrence, McKenna said.
Her worries might be well-founded.
The St Lawrence, which originates in the Great Lakes in the United States and empties into the North Atlantic, provides 45 percent of drinking water consumed by eight million Quebecers.
The waterway is also known for its biological diversity. It is home to 64 species of land animals, 19 marine species and includes the only colony of beluga whales outside of the Arctic.
It also is home to 80 kinds of fish and some 400 varieties of birds.
The fate of aquatic life was a particular concern for natives who rely on the St Lawrence, namely the Kahnawake Mohawks just five kilometers (three miles) upstream.
They worry about fish being contaminated -- particularly sturgeon, which will be spawning around the same time as the wastewater release.
Joe Delaronde, spokesman for one indigenous group, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said he understands that the Montreal sewers had to be refurbished, but resented how it was handled by the city.
He especially dislikes not having been kept in the loop about the program.
“We found out like the other people, in the media,” he told AFP.
“We weren’t given any notice, that was part of our issue, of our complaints,” he said.
“They have a duty to consult with the first nations,” he said.
“We have sturgeons, they feed all the way up, they go through the rapids.”
We’re just trying to improve the situation, that’s all, and take care of the river,” Delaronde said.
For native peoples he said “it’s our DNA. The river is life.”