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The sight of snow-filled dump trucks around the Third might have some Thirders dreaming about soon seeing over snow banks at intersections, walking on cleared sidewalks and being able to easily enter their favourite shops without climbing over snow mountains.


But the reality is that dumping snow in the harbour harms the environment, pollutes our waters and harms fish; and the longer it sits on our streets, the more contaminated it is when dumped.


Cleared snow contains more than the white fluffy stuff. Contaminates get mixed with the snow as it sits on the streets – plastics, household waste, pet feces, road salt and chemicals like antifreeze; brake fluid; oil; gas and diesel all find its way into our snowbanks.


The harbour dumped snow is unlike the snow that falls into the ocean during a snow storm. Plowed snow is snow that has been dragged through the streets.   


That’s why it is illegal to dump it and why City Hall needed permission to do it.


The Fisheries Act prohibits the deposit of any harmful substances in water that fish habitat unless approved by the Department of Environment and Climate Change.


Section 36 of the Fisheries Act states that ballast, coal ashes, stones are prohibited as are "other prejudicial or deleterious substances." The Department of Fisheries includes gravel and road salt if in high enough amounts as deleterious substances.  The provisions in the act serve to protect fish as a public resource by prohibiting pollution that could be deleterious to fish.


The Department of Environment and Climate Change administers and enforces the pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act.  But even when approval is given, the dumping must be compliant with the Fisheries Act.


A state of emergency does nothing to reduce the contaminates found in cleared snow. Nor does it permit CBRM from violating the Fisheries Act.


Since February 10, CBRM has been dumping street cleared snow into Sydney Harbour. According to a spokesperson with City Hall, the municipality doesn’t know how much snow it has dumped in the harbour, but it does know when it will stop dumping it.


“Once all the snow clearing and widening efforts from the two snowfalls in February have been completed, the CBRM will resume its regular operations and stop dumping new snow into the harbour,” the spokesperson outlined in an emailed statement to The Third. 

Cities and towns along the coasts of North America have a long history of dumping their snow into their harbours when large amounts accumulated within a short time. However, during the last several decades many jurisdictions have taken action to prohibit the dumping of street cleared snow into waterways in efforts to protect the environment and respond to citizens’ demands.


While some local governments have been getting away with harbour dumping without much criticism or debate, others have local heroes who have for years been fighting snow dumping. Take Mr. Floatie from Victoria,for example. He is the mascot created in 2004 by elementary school teacher James Skwarok as part of the larger citizen group — the People Opposed to Outfall Pollution, or POOP, created to educate citizens about the sewage being dumped into the harbour.


Mr. Floatie is a six-foot tall anthropomorphic piece of feces who regularly attended events and appeared on social media to draw attention to Victoria's lack of sewage treatment.


Closer to home, Dr. Ian Jones, a biologist at Memorial University, has been pushing for more than a decade for St. John’s to end its harbour snow dumping. Although he doesn’t wear a costume, his commitment is as strong.


In 2019 after the Department of Environment advised the city to stop dumping snow in St John’s Harbour, Jones thought he was making progress after the city reached out for advice, but the city continues to dump snow.


Jones told The Third that everything from domestic waste, chemicals and plastics make their way into the St. John’s Harbour during the city’s harbour snow dumps.


“It’s illegal and it’s harmful,” he said.


While elected officials both former and current are on record acknowledging that harbour snow dumping can harm its waters and marine life in them, the city has not committed to ending the practice.


Former St. John's Mayor Dennis O'Keefe said in 2014 that the city was looking into other options to save money amid concerns about the environmental impact. In 2019 a councillor admitted that the city didn’t have a permit to dump snow in the harbour.


Ten years later, Jones thinks that it comes down to money – and lacking enforcement of environmental laws in Canada. The city knows that alternative sites will require money and it also knows that the city won’t be charged by government enforcement officials.


Jones told The Third that a lack of regulation enforcement is a problem in Canada.


In Halifax, dumping road cleared snow into the harbour became a hotly contested issue until 2017 when the municipality was advised by Environment Canada not to dump snow into the water, citing the Fisheries Act.


A spokesperson at the time said in response that, "It's safe to assume the kind of debris we collect in the course of gathering snow, whether it be salt or sand, traces of gasoline, oils — all of that would be considered dangerous to the environment, especially to fish."


Instead, the municipality began to rely on its designated spots to store excess snow. In doing so, they chose appropriate spaces and worked with engineers to ensure filtration and drainage systems were in place to manage the snow as it melts.


"We're very careful to ensure the dumping places that we do have around the city are places where, when the snow melts, there's a filtration system in place to ensure that none of the gasoline or the traces of oil would seep into the ground," said a spokesperson at the time.


Since the late 1970s, Halifax dumped snow in the harbour only once in 2003 during "White Juan when asked Environment Canada for permission to dump thousands of tonnes of snow in the harbour.


CBRM also uses designated areas to dump snow, but after 150 cm fell during a four-day weather event, it determined it needed other options. 


“Under normal circumstances, the CBRM uses its designated sites to put snow, however, with the two significant snowfalls CBRM experienced earlier this month, we needed to explore additional options for snow dumping. The Municipality received federal approval to dump snow into the Sydney harbour as we were running out of space to dump the snow,” says the statement.


CBRM last asked for permission to dump snow in the harbour in 2015 when the area received approximately 100 cm of snow during four days in March.


Regulations not enforced


In 2019 Jones told The Newfoundland Wire that Canada’s bodies of water “are getting to the stage where they have more trash and pollution in them than fish. Last week to The Third he referred to them as “garbage patches.”


His work on dead birds and other marine life has found plastic debris in their guts. It isn’t digestible and causes blockages that are fatal to the animals.


As a result of such research, most organizations don’t ask the Department of Environment, says Jones. “It’s illegal because it causes harm. It drifts out into the ocean.”


But CBRM says it is taking the needed precautions to respect the Fisheries Act.


The Third asked CBRM several specific questions about how it is ensuring the Fisheries Act is followed, including: How is CBRM ensuring that the Fisheries Act is respected when snow is being dumped into the harbour? For example, a snow dumping policy. Who is responsible at CBRM for ensuring that the Act is being respected? How is CBRM determining when snow is dumped in the harbour?


The response to The Third from CBRM is vague and suggests that Professor Jones might be correct to sound the alarm about the lack of environmental enforcement.


“Snow being dumped into the harbour must be free of debris and soil. CBRM staff and contractors are taking every possible precaution to comply with the Fisheries Act. Dumping the snow in the harbour has allowed snow clearing staff to drive shorter distances to dump the snow, allowing for snow clearing and widening efforts to happen in a timely manner,” says the statement from CBRM.


The response does not address the direct questions asked about protection procedures or measurements.


As Jones told The Third, he thinks our water helps to feed us so we should respect it. But not all agree with the Memorial professor.


Ends up in ocean anyway


There are other experts who disagree with Jones’ perspective. Ken Oakes teaches biology at CBU. He acknowledges that road cleared snow is contaminated but says most of it ends up in our waterways regardless of if it is dumped or melts naturally.


“The snow itself is no problem, being exclusively frozen water, but very often other materials are included,” he told The Third. “Garbage and litter might be a concern, oil and antifreeze residues etc. from leaking cars, but these materials invariably move through streams and storm drains to the ocean regardless.”


“The challenge is not the melted snow itself (pretty pure water) but whatever it interacts with and picks up along the way to the harbour, be that in a liquid form as water through stream beds and storm drains, or in solid form via direct deposition into harbours,” he said.


Under the circumstances faced by CBRM, Oakes believes that the request of CBRM to the Environment department seems “completely reasonable.”


Oakes goes so far to suggest that the harbour dumping might have some beneficial impacts.


“This practise may in fact alleviate spring flooding in low-capacity watersheds like Wash Brook relative to being left on land to melt,” he said.


He also said dumping the snow before it gets too contaminated could also help to reduce toxins in the snow. However, the storm occurred almost three weeks ago, and the snow is every day becoming more contaminated due to human activity.


“The longer the snow interacts with the built environment and its denizens, the more impurities that snow will accumulate (white to grey to black) with materials that could reduce the purity of water eventually entering oceans, the ultimate receiver of freshwater runoff. So, dumping now may, in some ways, ameliorate toxicity of the snowmelt,” he added when he spoke to The Third last week.


Snow Dumps


However, some contaminants like household waste and street garbage that would naturally not find their way to waterways do when harbour dumping takes place.


That’s why many jurisdictions have banned harbour dumping and instead use land dumps or snow dumps to store snow.


Professor Jones thinks it is a much better option than potentially polluting our oceans.


While there will still be runoff that enters our waterways as the snow melts, snow dumps provide a mechanism to manage what ends up in our oceans.


Jones says that in jurisdictions that use snow dumps, the proof they work is revealed each spring when the snow has melted and all that remains is bags of household garbage and other debris, such as plastics, that are endangering marine wildlife.


The Third asked the municipality what other options it considered before deciding to dump it in the harbour but didn’t get a response by deadline. We were told that CBRM has designated sites to dump snow in each of the larger communities that make up the CBRM.


Human activities


Oakes said that regardless of how jurisdictions manage street cleared snow, humans have a major impact on the environment.


“The human influences will accumulate on CBRM hard surfaces (exhaust fumes, tire wear (think of how often tires are replaced and the ¾” rubber and other compounds lost to the environment per tire, 4 tires per car, replaced every few years). Humans unfortunately, in big and small ways, inadvertently and directly impact the natural environment around them.”





Do you think that CBRM should be dumping street cleared snow into the harbour?


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