TIMMINS -- Shocked by last year's study showing toxic metals in fish found in Porcupine Lake, Porcupine native Sherrill Richards wanted a closer look at how the city's notorious sewage dumping is impacting her old neighbourhood.

An avid advocate of the lake's health, she enlisted the help of family and friends in the area to collect their own samples of lake water and sewage sediment. They sent it out for testing to get a clearer look at the lake's issues.

"We have a lake that's been turned into a sewage lagoon," said Richards, who formed a group called 'Save Porcupine Lake' to raise awareness for its issues.

"Between the odours and the raw sewage against the docks ... people can't open up their windows in the summer."

'Completely unacceptable'

Family friend and chemical engineer Marc Talbot volunteered to collect the samples. While testing is done regularly on the lake, Talbot said the community should have an active role in keeping the city accountable on this issue.

The test results came back showing high levels of several toxic metals, including aluminum, chromium, lead, iron, nickel and cobalt.

The results confirmed prior studies of the lake's health, which has been damaged as a result of decades of industrial discharge and city sewage dumping. Talbot said the results were disheartening for someone who has enjoyed the lake all of his life.

"Bypassing sewage into a lake, any lake, is completely unacceptable," he said. "The wildlife is actually using and consuming what's … in this lake. And so it's a concern, not just for me, but for everybody."

Calling for government action

Richards sent the test results to the local office for Ontario's Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) office in November, asking for action.

Richards said she did not receive a response from the office until CTV asked for an interview.

Greg Ault, the MECP Timmins district manager, issued a statement via email, saying:

"The ministry takes concerns about contamination in Porcupine Lake very seriously. We are currently reviewing the information provided to us and expect to have our review completed this spring."

Richards said Ault's email to her echoed that statement. Ault added he felt it premature to talk next steps until the review is complete.

History of city violations

Years ago, revelations of the City of Timmins' violations regarding sewage dumping led the MECP to order the city to upgrade its sewer system, which would hopefully end the practice.

Several extensions to its deadline have been issued since, as the city works to build a pumping station and two large water tanks that would hold excess sewer capacity during heavy rainfall until it can be fed to the area's water treatment plant.

Area city councillor John Curley said bypassing sewage has been necessary, since it would otherwise backup into people's basements. But he said the city is committed to completing its upgrades, despite the delays, and hopes it will be a lasting solution.

"This has gone on over a few council terms, so it is frustrating from everybody's point," Curley said. "We know our issues, we're working on that to correct it. Hopefully, it will be done."

'Essential for human health'

Even then, he said it will likely take years for the lake to return to good health.

For Richards, the solutions that will give the lake an opportunity to recover are long overdue, and so she hopes the MECP will work to push that process along.

"A healthy environment and ecosystem is essential for human health, both mental and physical," Richards said. "We are in the midst of a pandemic. If there was ever a time for governments to recognize the importance of a healthy environment, it's now."