2nd sewage leak into Hamilton Harbour found; city ‘might find more’

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Published January 9, 2023 at 5:47 pm

Another sewage leak into Hamilton Harbour has been confirmed, raising questions about whether a public health issue for waterfront workers is on the city’s hands.

In November, the City of Hamilton discovered the Burlington St. sewage spill, in which a pipe that had been leaking undetected for 26 years spilled some 337 million litres of sewage into the harbour. That prompted Hamilton Water to begin what is called a proactive maintenance program. On Saturday, a similar “cross-connection” — a sewage line erroneously connected to a storm sewer that collects rainwater — was found at Rutherford Ave. and Myrtle Ave., at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment. It is believed untreated wastewater from as many as 11 homes had been sent directly into the harbour since 1996, instead of to a treatment plant.

Both Mayor Andrea Horwath and Hamilton Water Director Nick Winters cautioned that finding more sewage leaks is a distinct possibility. Winters said that after the Burlington St. spill, Hamilton Water began inspecting combined sewers in areas where they believed there was a significant risk factor.

“It would be difficult to say that’s not a possibility,” Winters said of finding more leaks. “That another has been found, in that short period since the Burlington Street spill, speaks to the success of what we think is the proper inspection program. We don’t fully know the scope, but it’s likely there will be more.”

The city has contacted the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), which it was already speaking with about mitigating the Burlington spill. Mayor Horwath said that she had spoken to Environment Minister David Piccini about the situation.

The mayor had also contacted Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and was reaching out to Chief Mark B. Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River, as well as other elected officials who represent Hamilton. (Hamilton’s geographic expanse is on the traditional territories of those Indigenous nations.)

“The most important thing to keep in mind is we have a very old combined sewer and water system,” Horwath said. “Having made the commitment to let people know as quickly as possible, that’s our obligation as a group. Nobody wants this kind of news — it’s not great news — but it is our responsibility to let Hamiltonians know.

“There are no bones about it, we might find more of these situations,” Horwath added. “So we always have to be monitoring the health and well-being of our natural environment.”

The question of whether the leaks could rise to the level of public health issue was raised. Horwath said she anticipates that the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, would weigh in if it comes to that.

Winters explained that the Rutherford-Myrtle spill, which was being pumped out by a vacuum truck on Monday, would be viewed as “unique” from the one found in November.  Auditing the entire water treatment system has been promised, but how that is carried out (and funded) is not yet completed. Municipalities, as creatures of the province, have to submit a clean-up plan to MECP.

“We’ve had preliminary discussions with the province and have made recommendations for what we think an appropriate audit,” Winters said.

“We have been doing a pilot program where we look at one sewer shed at a time and identified areas, where it might make sense historically that someone connected a sewer pipe to a storm sewer …  We hope it is coincidental these issues developed in the same year.”

The city’s estimate of sewage sent into the harbour is based on water meter usage data for the properties connected to the leaking pipe. The 337-million-litres estimate for Burlington St. was drawn from data for about 50 businesses and homes, or 4½ times as many as the number of properties involved in this newly confirmed Rutherford/Myrtle spill.

(Cover photo; The Canadian Press; secondary photo; City of Hamilton/WebEx.)

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