Sewage leak went undetected for 26 years in Hamilton


Published November 22, 2022 at 6:39 pm

A sewage line has been flowing into a storm sewer in Hamilton Harbour since 1996, causing as-yet-undetermined environmental damage and also evoking #Sewergate — the infamous Chedoke Creek sewage spill.

Hamilton Water staff discovered the quarter-century-old hole in the line at the foot of Wentworth St. N., at Burlington St. E., late on Tuesday morning. Around 50 residences had been inadvertently flushing untreated wastewater. Mayor Andrea Horwath, who is one week on the job, has ordered the city auditor to investigate and create a “full public report” about the oversight.

Next Monday marks three years to the day since the city apologized for #Sewergate, where an improperly closed gate led to 24 billion litres of sewage leaking into local waterways. Remediation work after the befouling of Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise is expected to take years, and cost millions.

Mayor Horwath said a “not again” feeling was her automatic thought when she learned of the leak at around 3 p.m. on Tuesday. Her media availability was held 2¼ hours later, at 5:15.

“I don’t know that volumes of material is what has the people of Hamilton concerned,” Horwath said in a media conference. “It’s the wondering of could this happen again. That’s why I’m here tonight, trying to show we are being open and letting people know what is being done. How did it go undetected? That’s why I’m asking for the auditor report.

“It isn’t a matter of the volumes, it’s a matter of the patterns,” the mayor added.

Hamilton Water Director Nick Winters said an early diagnosis is that the hole has been there since the beginning. The sewage pipe was designed in 1996. Untreated wastewater is supposed to go to a treatment plant, not into the harbour.

“It appears the consultant involved in that work was under the impression all the sewers in that area were storm sewers and they designed a direct connection to a culvert that leads out to Hamilton Harbour.”

The City of Hamilton provided a photo of the combined sewer with noticeable flow dropping out and into the storm sewer.

It also shared a screenshot from a 2013 video that provides an aerial image looking down at the cross connection where the combined sewer water is entering the storm sewer below it.

‘Environmental impacts are unacceptable’

Winters added that the spill was not “easily detectable” since the pipe is completely submerged in Burlington Bay, but that it existed for so long is unacceptable. The spill did not occur near Randle Reef, which is one of the most contaminated sites in the Canadian Great Lakes. Winters said that the only surface-level difference Hamiltonians would notice presently is a vacuum truck removing wastewater.

Combined sewage from untreated wastewater flowing into stormwater is separate from the drinking water supply. It’s also believed that less combined sewage went into a natural body of water undetected than it did with #Sewergate.

“I would characterize the risk to public as extremely low,” Winters said.

“But in one word, the environmental impacts are unacceptable,” he added. “But the full extent of that will take time to determine.”

The discovery means that Hamilton has two spills to clean up simultaneously. Winters acknowledged that will be a challenge.

“That’s something that we’re going to have look into,” Winters said. “It will take time even figuring out the impact before we see what mitigations are going to be effective.”

The Chedoke Creek contamination was caused by a malfunctioning gate. It lasted for about 4½ years until its discovery in July 2018. It did not become public for until a bombshell Hamilton Spectator report in November 2019. Days later, the council meeting about whether the elected leadership of Hamilton should apologize and release additional information on the leak dragged until 3:30 a.m.

Horwath: “Again? This is happening again?”

Only six of 15 councillors from the 2018-22 term were re-elected last month, when Horwath became the first female mayor in the history of Hamilton. Politically, the mayor said that facing the public on the same day of the discovery was in keeping with how city council must work to rebuild trust in the institution of local government.

“I would say it is only human nature to have this sense of, ‘Again? This is happening again?’ ” the mayor said. “I’m sure that’s the reaction of a lot of Hamiltonians.

“My biggest concern is the effect this spill will have on the environment,” she added. “I have heard clearly that there is a plan to mitigate. What we need to see is some evidence. That’s why I’ve asked for a full public report. It’s important for Hamiltonians to get this information as quickly as possible.

“We are not putting this in a corner or hiding it under a rug,” she added.

It is, given the recency of the discovery, too early to tell what went wrong with the sewage leak.

The auditor, though, has recently told the city needs to cross the T’s and dot the I’s more thoroughly with another major component of public infrastructure — namely, roadways.

In the summer, a roads quality assurance supplementary audit concluded that the city “lacks a mature process” for determining where it has infrastructure deficits and is lax about evaluating contractors whose work might turn out to be subpar. A similar finding was presented to council in the summer of 2021.

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