WELCOME TO THE GARBAGE hole. The sulphuric, rotten-egg stench coming off the heaps of brown sludge at Montreal’s Francon snow depot is putrid even on a cold, grey March day. Here, in this former quarry, the melt of early spring has revealed crumpled laundry detergent bottles, the petrified carcass of a badminton birdie, used tampon applicators, and other shards of hardened, forgotten plastic. It’s the stuff you think is destined for landfill or recycling when you toss it, but instead, it ends up on the street, then in the path of a snowplow, and then on a dump truck, then at the snow dump. The trash mingles with mountains of snow stained by a cocktail of pollutants, releasing a nauseating assault on the senses.
This is the final resting place for snow removal in Montreal. This city spends more than any other in the world on picking up snow and putting down salt on its 10,000 kilometers of roads: in 2019–2020, its snow removal budget hit $166.4 million.
I meet with city spokesperson Philippe Sabourin at the gate of Francon in mid-March 2020. Most of the season’s snow has already fallen in Montreal, and it’s still early enough in the COVID-19 pandemic that in-person meetings are permissible. Still, we get into our own vehicles and head into the pit, descending on muddy gravel roads. Suddenly, the hilly landscape parts and the floor of the human-made canyon sprawls out in front of us. Its vastness surprises me.
The Francon depot receives about 40 percent of the city’s snow — or, about five million cubic meters, equivalent to 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The rest of the snow is split between 11 other depots and 15 sewer dumps, where snow is dumped into massive tunnels and sent to a water treatment facility. It is hard to imagine, and to describe, the size of the Francon snow pile. I look up to the top edge. I feel like a tiny ant in a barrel.
During a winter storm, this otherwise desolate parcel of industrial Montreal sparks with frenetic action. Working off each borough’s orders, the snow contractors typically start with sidewalks and busy thoroughfares, then move to smaller, residential streets as the hours stretch on. As many as 300 dump trucks an hour line ups at the gate all day and night to unload their heaps of snow, so they can go back out to collect more. The more they collect, the more money they make.
The cameras mounted at the gate are a newer feature, meant to deter cheating: they take pictures of each load to ensure trucks enter only when their containers are full. The trucks also exchange wireless electronic signals with the gatehouse to keep track of which streets each load comes from, to ensure they’re only working their own turf. Then, the trucks reverse into unloading docks at street level at the top of the quarry, lift their containers, and there’s a sudden whoosh! as an avalanche of dirty, frozen slush cascades into the hole.
Tracey Lindeman (@traceylindeman) is a freelance writer whose work appears in Fortune and Maisonneuve magazines and The Guardian. Christian Fleury (christianfleury.com) is a Montrealbased editorial and commercial photographer.
By the end of an average winter, 300,000 of these trips will have happened, and a perfect, disgusting, smelly 60-plus-meter pyramid has formed under each unloading dock. These slush stalagmites sometimes never fully melt, even during Montreal’s hot, swampy summers.
THE FRANCON DEPOT RECEIVES ABOUT 40 percent OF THE CITY’S SNOW — EQUIVALENT TO 2,000 OLYMPIC-SIZED SWIMMING POOLS.
It snows a lot in Montreal. Each year, the city gets an average of 209 centimeters of snow. Sometimes it’s less, but often it’s more — such as in the winter of 2007-2008 when 371 centimeters fell. (That was just 12 centimeters shy of breaking the all-time snowfall record set in 1971.) It felt like it never stopped snowing that winter, a little more than a decade ago. I lived on the second floor of a St-Antoine Street triplex then, at the top of a flight of steep, narrow stairs. I took a tumble on those stairs more than once, the snow and my parka padding my descent.
One particular storm stands out vividly. It’s nighttime, and I’m standing on the sidewalk in a kneedeep drift, exasperated and exhausted from shoveling wet, heavy snow off the steps. I pause to take in the magnitude of the blizzard. The massive flakes swarm around the streetlights like moths do in the summertime. The nighttime silence is interrupted only by the scrapes of shovels against concrete, the plaintive squeals of cars spinning their tires, the huffs, and puffs of my comrade shovellers. I think: living in Montreal is not for those with weakness of body or spirit. I turn to face the stairs. They are once again covered in a thick covering of snow. I pick my shovel back up and my chest heaves with a heavy sigh. There is just no place left to throw the snow. I fling it into the street.
A week or so later, it was as if the storm had never happened. Sidewalks and streets had been cleared of the evidence.
Colossal piles of snow (opposite), stray trash (above left), and city spokesperson Philippe Sabourin (above right) at Montreal’s Francon snow depot.
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