Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday November 23, 2019
Hamilton sewage scandal: What happened, and why was it kept secret?
Last week, The Spectator revealed Hamilton city council knew in January about a massive sewage spill into Chedoke Creek but kept the details secret.
Here’s a surface-scraping primer on the scandal so far.
An overflow tank gate was left partly open for four-and-a-half years, releasing an estimated 24 billion litres of raw sewage into Chedoke Creek, which flows into Cootes Paradise, between January 2014 and July 2018.
Confidential city reports leaked to The Spectator note staff don’t know why the gate was left open or who did it. A separate gate mishap between January and July 2018 caused 30 per cent of the mess.
The full magnitude of the big leak was discovered after citizen complaints of stench in the area in July 2018.
What’s a combined sewer overflow tank?
Hamilton has nine large tanks that hold wastewater until it can be deposited into the Woodward Avenue treatment plant.
The tank in question, called the Main/King tank, was built in the 1990s and holds 75,000 cubic metres. It’s located at Cathedral Park at 707 King St. W.
“The automated monitoring systems at the CSO tank did not detect the discharge, nor was the discharge visible to staff during monthly facility inspections,” the city’s confidential documents note.
What about the watershed?
The July 2018 spill was a “huge setback,” said Tys Theijsmeijer, the Royal Botanical Gardens’ head of natural areas.
“Basically, all the oxygen was sucked out of the water, the algae growth was rampant … and so many plants, like water lilies, were just wiped out.”
The city didn’t tell the RBG, which is the steward of Cootes Paradise, the full volume and duration of the problem, however.
More than 240,000 litres of “floatable material” was removed from the surface of Chedoke Creek and taken to the Woodward Avenue plant.
The city faces a Feb. 14, 2020 deadline to submit an ecological risk assessment and, possibly, a remediation plan for Chedoke Creek. The confidential city reports suggest dredging the creek could cost $2 million.
What did the city tell (and not tell) the public?
The city told the public about the spill in July 2018 and posted warning signs around the popular paddling spot, but the full magnitude of the disaster was kept under wraps.
Staff and outside legal counsel advised council against publicizing the estimated 24-billion-litre volume and more-than-four-year span, as well as releasing consulting reports.
The rationale was that doing so could expose the city to financial risk amid a Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks investigation with potential fines of as high as $6 million.
What’s the political fallout?
Councillors say they opted for secrecy to protect taxpayers from financial liability, citing the legal advice they received.
All members of council voted in favour of confidentiality, but three councillors — Nrinder Nann, Maureen Wilson and John-Paul Danko — also cast dissenting votes at various times.
Nann and Wilson have since called for a public apology and the release of all documentation.
But councillors have also directed staff to investigate who gave The Spectator the confidential reports, sources say.
The sewage scandal has also made waves at Queen’s Park with NDP MPP Sandy Shaw (Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas) scolding the ministry for not telling residents about the full extent of the leak. (Hamilton Spectator)