Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Friday November 29, 2019
‘We can’t take that back’: Eisenberger on keeping Hamilton sewage spill details secret
Mayor Fred Eisenberger is standing by Hamilton city council’s decision not to disclose publicly the full magnitude of a massive sewage spill for nearly a year.
“The incident happened already,” Eisenberger said Tuesday. “The material, whatever was there, had already gone into the system. We couldn’t get it back.”
The mayor spoke to The Spectator for the first time about the estimated 24-billion-litre sewage leak into Chedoke Creek, which flows into Cootes Paradise, after returning home from an economic development trip in India.
Last week, The Spectator reported that city officials had kept secret not only the volume of the raw sewage spill, but also its four-and-a-half-year duration.
Leaked confidential reports from January and September show the spill was attributed to a holding tank gate left partly open from January 2014 to July 2018. The reports also pointed to a second gate failure on the same tank.
Outside legal advice recommended city officials keep the information secret due to potential regulatory fines amid a provincial investigation.
On Tuesday, Eisenberger, who noted his plane landed at 5:30 a.m., defended the approach, saying public health informed residents of a sewage spill at Chedoke Creek in July 2018.
Floatable material was sucked up, warning signs were posted, and E. coli levels eventually returned to what they were before the sewage leak, he said.
But the volume of the contamination and duration of the leak weren’t shared with the public, Eisenberger acknowledged.
“Because it was still under investigation. The legal advice that we received at the time was, ‘Do not disclose the full amount; there are potential legal issues that come out of that; there are potential other claims that could be made.’”
Public works spokesperson Jasmine Graham said Tuesday the city has paid environmental lawyer Rosalind Cooper $67,393.55 for her services as of October.
Eisenberger said the advice of the Toronto-based lawyer, who has many years of experience in the field, is still worth following.
“I’m not prepared to second guess it,” he said. “I understand the furor that’s out there. I get it. There’s always that tug between full disclosure and legal ramifications, and we have that happen in many instances that we deal with.”
Though the city conducted an initial surface water cleanup in July 2018 — at a cost of about $56,000 — material would have sunk to the bottom. The confidential reports noted dredging could cost $2 million. (Hamilton Spectator)