Pressure Builds to Clean-up Sewage in the St. Mary’s River

Pressure Builds to Clean-up Sewage in the St. Mary’s River

By Brian Christie, Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council

In a recent issue of G.L.A.N. News (Vol. 14 Issue 3) writer Joanie McGuffin reported ongoing concerns with pollution in the St. Mary’s River in the vicinity of Sault Ontario’s east-end sewage treatment plant. Residents of Sugar Island Michigan living immediately opposite the plant, continued through the summer to contend with beach closings and no body contact orders issued by the Chippewa County Board of Health due to water-born health hazards including coliform and E. coli counts beyond the capacity of instruments to measure, and offensive materials that accumulated on their beaches.

Sugar Island residents complained about the presence of “pop-ups” in the river, chunks of sediment that break loose due to gaseous activity, suggesting this material might in fact be raw sewage released by the 50 year old primary level sewage treatment plant. Some 25 years ago the International Joint Commission (IJC) recognized the St. Mary’s River as an environmental “hotspot” and among other things recommended that the east-end plant be upgraded to provide secondary level treatment.

For 16 years the Binational Public Advisory Committee for the St. Mary’s River Remedial Action Plan (BPAC) had highlighted the issue of contaminated sediments and defined them as “areas of concern” designated for clean-up. Indeed, in 1992 the Canadian and Ontario governments had committed to taking the lead in this clean-up effort.

Sugar Island residents launched a petition writing campaign aided by the BPAC to bring their concerns directly to area politicians. Some Island residents collected water samples for analysis. The Chippewa County Department of Health was persuaded to undertake more comprehensive and strategic water testing. Lake Superior State University students were engaged to conduct the field work. Dr. Joan Rose of Michigan State University, a world-renowned water expert and chair of the U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board – Drinking Water Committee was requested to review the results.

Water samples were taken from the river above and below the east-end sewage treatment plant on both sides of the river and analyized for microbiological qualities. Preliminary findings were released in July. The analysis found evidence of fecal bacteria, viruses and parasites coming from the Ontario outfall pipe and described the water quality at that same “boil site” as being inferior when compared to the U.S. “boil site.” During field work Chippewa County Health Department staff noted a lot of floating solids and a lot of murky water emanating from the old outfall pipe. However, the floating solids were not sampled or analyzed.

This August a 77 million dollar state-of-the-art secondary-level treatment plant came on line at the east-end plant site. That same month a small group of Sugar Island residents applied more pressure by filing a civil suit against the Public Utilities Commission in Sault Ontario. The PUC oversees operation of the city’s sewage and water treatment infrastructure. The suit alleged that the PUC was responsible for damages to properties on Sugar Island caused by waste materials from the east-end sewage treatment plant.

Throughout the summer a flurry of public meetings and private consultations were organized by local Canadian and U.S federal politicians and state representative. Excursions on the river provided elected officials with a close-up view of the situation. Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak and Sault Ste. Marie Member of Parliament Tony Martin wrote letters of concern to the Canadian Minister of the Environment. They also wrote letters to the U.S. Secretary of State and Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs to highlight the significance of this international situation. A “diplomatic note of concern” was sent from the State Department in Washington to Ottawa.

The IJC wrote to Environment Canada requesting that they more closely monitor discharge from Sault Ontario’s east-end treatment plant. State Representative Gary McDowell engaged in correspondence with Sault Ste. Marie Mayor John Rowswell over the city’s dismissal of Dr. Rose’s preliminary findings and continued refusal to take responsibility. Representative McDowell even offered to provide Michigan engineers to supervise operation of the new sewage treatment plant, if that would help. Environment Canada put a bureaucrat in Toronto on the file as did the EPA in Chicago. Out of all this activity came a protocol which calls for the various levels of government and local health agencies to share information to facilitate investigation of complaints, provide for better monitoring of the St. Mary’s River and development of short-term and long-term solutions to the problem.

On November 8th a treaty was signed between the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Garden River First Nation, Bay Mills Indian Community, and Batchewana First Nation expressing their concerns and hopes regarding the preservation, protection and enhancement of the waters of the St Mary’s River. The treaty unites the efforts and influence of the four tribal nations bordering the St. Mary’s River to persuade governments to rehabilitate the waters and ecosystems so they are once again safe for human use. Signers of the treaty were wise enough not to lay-blame or point fingers, and remained optimistic. Garden River Chief, Lyle Sayers put it succinctly, “It’s not going to get any better if they don’t fix the problem.”

Notwithstanding the bubbling sewage issue, other cleanup activities were underway on the river. Tannery Bay dredging moved ahead as did the clean-up of coal dust and tar laden sediment at Algoma Steel’s docking facilities. Engineering studies commenced to determine the nature and extent of contaminated sediments in two hot spots including parts of the river adjacent and downstream from the east-end sewage treatment plant. Will the river again be safe for human contact? There appears to reason for hope.


For more information: Brian Christie,

Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council

285 Wilson Street

• Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario P6B 2K6 PH: 705 946-0044 • Fax: 705 946-4980 E-mail:


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