Posted on November 24, 2020
The province has rejected Hamilton’s “do-nothing approach” to cleaning up a 24-billion-litre sewage spill and ordered the city to dredge pollution-ravaged Chedoke Creek.
The Spectator revealed in November 2019 that an open sewer gate spilled 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of sewage into the west-end creek over four years. The province issued a cleanup order that month and a separate spill investigation continues.
In response to that order, the city proposed more water testing but no further cleanup in the creek or nearby Cootes Paradise marsh. The city based its decision on a SLR consulting report that argued the spill caused no lasting damage — even though an earlier consultant, Wood Environmental, recommended dredging up creek pollutants.
After months of review, the provincial Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks rejected the city’s plan.
“A ‘do-nothing approach’ is unacceptable and does not address the potential for adverse effect as required by the Environmental Protection Act,” spokesperson Jennifer Hall said in an email.
Instead, the province has ordered the city to do “spot dredging” in Chedoke Creek and take a second look at remedial measures in the eco-sensitive marsh. The city must submit a plan by Jan. 22 and complete work by next November.
The city’s first consultant, Wood Environmental, originally suggested dredging 500 dump-truck loads of sewage sludge from the bottom of Chedoke Creek at a cost of around $2 million.
The city’s second consultant, SLR, said dredging was “unnecessary” and probably pointless in a creek that sees regular sewage overflows during storms. It also concluded the big spill did no lasting damage to Cootes Paradise.
Ministry technical experts disagreed.
The new order states the phosphorous-rich spill may “undo and delay” years of work to resurrect the polluted marsh and potentially lead to future algae blooms in the popular paddling spot. It asks the city to find a way to cut nutrient loads in the marsh without hurting the environmentally sensitive fish nursery.
The provincial order is a welcome repudiation of the city’s effort to minimize the spill impacts, said Environment Hamilton’s Lynda Lukasik.
“Honestly, I just think they mishandled this from the get-go,” said Lukasik, noting the community uproar after The Spectator revealed council originally hid the extent of the spill from the public for months.
“You get one consulting report telling you to clean up and then you say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that, let’s get a second opinion?’ I can’t imagine why they thought that would be acceptable.”
The city responded to the ministry order with an emailed statement promising “full co-operation.”
Mayor Fred Eisenberger said Premier Doug Ford’s office called him Thursday to let him know the order was coming. “Obviously, they’re wanting to be collaborative, and that is where we need to be. We want the best outcome for the creek and for Cootes Paradise.”
Eisenberger said he’d like clarity on where “targeted dredging” ought to occur. “That conversation needs to be had but once that’s done we’ll certainly follow the ministry’s orders to remediate to the best degree possible.”
Some councillors questioned the city’s expert consultant opinion last April to do nothing in Chedoke, but council ultimately voted to receive rather than challenge the plan.
West end Coun. Maureen Wilson, who voted against receiving the do-nothing plan, said she agrees with the provincial order and the “necessary public accounting of what happened.”
“I think it speaks to the necessity to act because the impact is real and doing nothing was not an option.”
The city has already promised several measures this year aimed at improving Chedoke water quality, including an upstream pollution study that will involve the RBG, Environment Hamilton and Bay Area Restoration Council.
This week, councillors Sam Merulla and Tom Jackson moved a motion to budget for possible creek rehabilitation. Coun. Lloyd Ferguson has also championed an artificial wetland project designed to clean polluted water on behalf of the Royal Botanical Gardens.
The provincial order notes the ministry took seriously the concerns outlined by the RBG, which owns and manages Cootes Paradise marsh.
The stewardship agency publicly disagreed with the city’s original assessment that the spill would have no long-term consequences for the protected marsh. Natural lands head Tys Theijsmeijer has said he is worried the sewage slurry of fecal bacteria, metals and phosphorous has already contributed to algal blooms and native plant deaths.
RBG head Mark Runciman said Friday his organization is still reviewing the provincial order, but added he is “optimistic that this is a step toward a positive solution.”
The city “absolutely bears responsibility” for the spill disaster, said Sandy Shaw, the NDP west Hamilton MPP.
But Shaw argued the Tory provincial government “should also be accountable” for doing “too little, too late.”
It has been more than two years since the start of an investigation into whether the spill broke the law and no remediation has happened so far.
“This is a spill beyond comprehension, and why is the ministry dragging its feet on this? Why are they taking so long to respond? It just boggles my mind,” Shaw said.