TorStar Insight: Lake of shame; Ontario’s Pollution Problem

Published On Fri Jul 8 2011 for Toronto Star

Viagra in the water, fish unfit to eat, environmental standards ignored. Critics say parts of Lake Ontario are ‘as bad as it’s ever been.

Just below the soaring Scarborough Bluffs, 17-month old Piper Clark scoops the fine sand into gloppy pies. Her brother Reed, 4, bravely ventures deeper into the water.

Around them on this hot summer day, bikini-clad girls frolic and tease boys in the waves, while the lifeguard warns them from straying too far out.

Colonies of swallows, warily eyeing the hawks soaring above, cling to the sandy face of the cliff.

Colleen Clark, a nurse, stands watch over her toddlers, her feet in the water, her dress hitched up above her knees.

“Oh sure, I let them go in,” she says, pointing to the green flag indicating the water is safe. “But I wouldn’t let them drink it.”

A few kilometres west of Bluffer’s Park, just below the Gardiner, two adult geese paddle around Keating Channel with their four fluffy goslings

That’s where the Don River spills into Toronto Harbour, spewing sewage as it flows.

It’s also where heavy trucks rumble on their way to the Leslie Spit to dump their loads of asphalt and rusty steel, bricks and rebar — what the city calls “clean fill.”

A boom spreads just beneath the trees where the geese shelter, there to catch the “floatables,” the used condoms, plastic tampon applicators and hypodermic needles that bob among the mini-explosions of methane bubbles.

Unlike Colleen Clark, Mother Goose can’t read the menace in the soupy black water.

Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a criminal lawyer turned, appropriately enough, environmental lawyer, surveys the scene and says, “I’ve been investigating the channel for 20 years, and this is as bad as it’s ever been.

“These carp go all over the lake, the birds migrate,” continues Mattson, as one of the geese elegantly dips its beak into the water. “They’re still part of the diet of northern communities. I wouldn’t want to be the hunter who shoots one of these geese and feeds it to his children.”

This, folks, is your water, what comes out of your tap, what you drink, what you bathe in and, if you aren’t lucky enough to have a cottage, what you swim in.

Some 4 1/2 million humans who have made their homes around Lake Ontario depend on this water — as does the wildlife on, in, above and around it.

“It’s our only source of drinking water,” says Mattson. “We’re very fortunate because, unlike so many other cities, Boston, New York, Vancouver, they don’t have their drinking water at the bottom of their street.

“But think about it: if Lake Ontario became undrinkable, if we had a Fukushima disaster at one of Ontario’s 21 reactors, there would be no alternative potable drinking water. We’d have to build a pipeline to Lake Huron or James Bay or something.”

Lake Ontario is the 14th largest lake in the world: 19,529 square kilometres, 1,146 kilometres of shoreline, 244 metres at its deepest.

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