The copper redhorse is an endangered species of fish that can only be found in Quebec. One of the last places it still spawns is the Richelieu River, a 124-KM waterway that flows northward from Lake Champlain and empties into the St. Lawrence River.
On January 24, the City of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu released a statement to its residents announcing major repairs to the Champlain pumping station, located on the river’s bank. The repairs began January 30 and will continue into early April. During this period, wastewater that would normally flow through the pumping station will be diverted into the river.
The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) made clear its opposition to the planned discharge in a January 27 statement that takes aim at the Ministry of the Environment and the Fight against Climate Change, Wildlife and Parks (MELCCFP).
“While the MCK understands the need to conduct the repairs, it is objecting to the MELCCFP authorization of the overflow event due to their failure to properly assess and compensate for environmental impacts,” the statement reads.
“The MCK remains deeply concerned about the impact of over 500,000 cubic metres of raw wastewater on the health of fish habitat and the river in general,” said MCK project technician Nathalie Murray in an email to the MELCCFP obtained by The Eastern Door.
“In this instance, the planned discharge will impact our territorial rights, stewardship rights and responsibilities, and fishing rights,” Murray continued.
But the City of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu says its hands are tied. “The pumping station has reached the end of its useful life,” said media relations officer Marie-Pier Gagnon.
“It means that if no work was planned or done, we could face serious breakdowns that would lead to unexpected discharges in the river for variable periods of time,” she continued.
Patrick Barriere, a spokesperson for the city’s Mayor, Andrée Bouchard, explained that city administrators provided the mayor and Council with a presentation that made it clear that the impact on the environment would be worse if they failed to make the $1.4 million repairs.
“We love our river – very much. Our team worked super hard to find the best way to avoid discharge when it became obvious that big repairs would be necessary a few years ago,” said Gagnon.
But Chief Ross Montour, who oversees MCK’s environment portfolio, isn’t buying it.
“It seems to be the result, in our opinion, of negligence in terms of the upkeep of that facility,” said Montour.
He’s concerned about the size of the influx and how it will affect the health of the flora and fauna who call the river and its watershed home. Lake sturgeon, river redhorse, and softshell turtles are all endangered species that inhabit the Richelieu and the 18 lakes and ponds and 40 rivers and tributary streams that comprise the Quebec portion of the river’s watershed.
In a January 17 email to Murray, Frédérique Duguet of MELCCFP argued that almost all of the Richelieu’s fish species spawn in spring or summer, which precludes these seasons from being suitable times for overflow, as it would pose threats to fish larvae and eggs. Duguet claimed that winter is a safer time for wastewater overflow, as fish have a lower metabolic rate and eat less.
The repairs to the pumping station will be carried out in two phases. The first phase, from January 30 to February 6, will see a temporary pump installed to reduce the volume of wastewater overflow during the second stage, which is set to be finished April 3.
In Murray’s response to the Ministry, she noted that “the MCK maintains its position that fish are also extremely vulnerable in winter when their metabolic rate and food intake is reduced,” adding that “contaminants in wastewater like pharmaceuticals break down slower under lower water temperatures, resulting in higher concentrations.”
Murray also brought attention to the fact that “there are no mitigation measures such as sediment screens” nor are there “plans to rehabilitate sediments or compensate for impacted fish habitat.”
The ministry noted that the Environment Quality Act does not require compensation measures for this type of work.
But the timing of the overflow and the corresponding piscine metabolic rates aren’t the only issues at play. For Montour, it’s also about the size of the spill.
“It’s massive – 2,000 olympic-sized swimming pools in volume,” he said.
For context, a previous discharge from the City of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu conducted in March 2021 was estimated to be 25,000 cubic metres in volume, meaning that the current spill is twenty times larger.
Montour expressed dismay at the “sickening regularity” of the wastewater overflow, citing four discharges conducted by the city in the last four years. But Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu said that the repairs currently underway will reduce wastewater discharge caused by annual maintenance by 88 percent.
Montour also took issue with how the ministry has gone about Indigenous consultation, saying their efforts “don’t pay any respect at all to the notion of a legitimate and sincere approach to consultation.”
When asked about the city’s duty to consult, Gagnon explained that the MELCCFP is responsible for environmental assessment, mitigation measures, and consultation with First Nations.
The MELCCFP did not respond to multiple requests for comment by deadline.