Special Report

After the Spill

Following a Council decision not to disclose two leaks of sewage and stormwater totalling 24 billion litres over four years, local civic leaders, stewardship agencies and the Ministry of Environment are working to come to terms with the aftermath.

By Paul Weinberg
Published September 02, 2020

This article has been updated.

Looking upstream at Chedoke Creek, July 5, 2018 (Image Credit: Tys Thysmeyer)
Looking upstream at Chedoke Creek, July 5, 2018 (Image Credit: Tys Thysmeyer)

It is hard to find anyone in these parts with a bad word to say about the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), the provincially mandated non-profit body that owns and maintains the 1,100 hectares of protected gardens, trails, marshlands and forest at the west end of Lake Ontario, including the Cootes Paradise Nature Reserve/National Historical site.

In the past fiscal year, the RBG brought in over $18 million to help maintain these precious natural areas, with 70 percent of its revenue generated through its admissions, memberships, rentals donations and programs, and the rest coming from the Ontario government, Hamilton and Halton region.

Pre-COVID-19, the RBG attracted more than 350,000 visitors annually and has worked closely with scientists and volunteers who treasure the lands and nature this organization protects.

For those not familiar with the geography of this area, Cootes Paradise Marsh is connected to the Hamilton Harbour via the Desjardins Canal, next to a harbourfront trail that starts at Bayfront Park and goes to Princess Point in Cootes Paradise. Several waterways feed into Cootes Paradise Marsh, including the Spencer and Chedoke creeks. Chedoke Creek collects storm water runoff and discharges from the City's combined sewer overflow tanks during large storm events.

Since the 1980s, the historically polluted Cootes Paradise Marsh has been the subject of serious restoration involving the RBG, Bay Area Restoration Council, the City of Hamilton, various agencies and departments at the federal and provincial level and local citizens.

In 1993, the RBG introduced Project Paradise, as part of the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan, to bring back native species of fish as well as other wildlife and plants in the freshwater marshland. "The long term goal is to create the underlying conditions for ecosystem recovery, while in the short term it is to manage the non-native carp that dominated and destroyed the wetlands." states the RBG website.

Because of the legacy, the remediation in Cootes remains a work in progress, according to the RBG 2019 factsheet.

"A century of inflowing sewage, watershed erosion and invasive species had destroyed the two coastal marshes of the Royal Botanical Gardens Nature Reserves. As part of a Remedial Action Plan (started 1985) both of these wetlands are improving, but are still degraded. The first project was implemented onsite in 1994 in Grindstone Marsh, although most projects occur upstream of RBG. 2018 found a decreased plant area with only pockets of restored habitat and clear water found in each wetland."

24 Billion Litres of Untreated Sewage and Stormwater

On November 21, 2019 the Hamilton Spectator revealed on its front page that City politicians had been keeping secret the accidental discharge of 24 billion litres of untreated sewage and stormwater into Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise over a four-and-a half year period, starting in the summer of 2014.

Among the parties kept out of the loop was the Royal Botanical Gardens, the owner and steward of Cootes Paradise. The unprecedented number of letters to the editor to the newspaper expressing anger for what became known as "Sewergate" established a chasm between local residents and the municipal government. The emotions have dampened down with the emergence in the early months of 2020 of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown procedures enacted to keep people safe from infection. We won't know the long-term political impact until the next municipal election.

Mayor Fred Eisenberg and City Council have since apologized for not being completely straight with Hamiltonians about the spill. In addition, the City Public Works department has hired a water quality technologist to pay close attention to water quality up- and downstream from all of discharge points in the sewage treatment system. And there has been a beefing up of the remote monitoring of the sewage flows in the treatment process as well.

Before we explore this further, let's examine what one person close to the scene says about Cootes Paradise before the revelations of the 24 billion litres.

"Everything (at Cootes) was moving in the right direction and then people started seeing changes. They saw the fish were not recovering the way they thought", says research scientist and McMaster professor Sigal Balshine, who specializes in investigating the impact of treated wastewater on fish.

As early as 2015, a group of Indigenous women who celebrate the significance of water spotted used syringes, tampons and their applicators, plastic caps, condoms and feces which had washed ashore in the vicinity of Cootes and Chedoke. They drew attention to it by floating on a raft for a few days.

"This is unacceptable," asserted Kristen Villebrun, a member of the Nibi Awan Bimaadiziwin (a water advocacy collective of Indigenous women and two-spirit people) told the local newspaper. "We're going to stay out here until we hear where this came from, what the source is and how they're going to clean it up in a timely manner."

It seems that they were the first ones to discover that a massive sewage discharge was taking place (although perhaps not appreciating the scale). Employees of the City of Hamilton Public Works department discovered the source of the discharge themselves in their wastewater treatment infrastructure three years later in the summer of 2018.

After the Spectator exposed the 24 billion litre spill last late year, the Nibi Awan Bimaadiziwin called upon Hamilton City Council to issue an apology to the water. Three Councillors (Maureen Wilson, Nrinder Nann and John Paul Danko) participated in a waterfront ceremony in response to the request.

Wilson, the Ward 1 Councillor, says on her website that the sewage spill started on January 28, 2014 and lasted until July 18, 2018, when it was discovered by City Public Works staff.

Two Separate Spill Events

Sometimes, media reporting of the 24 billion litre spill mistakenly describes it as a single event. As the City of Hamilton website emphasizes, there were actually two stages, a slow leak followed by a fast leak at the same Main-King combined sewer and stormwater overflow tank in Cathedral Park on King St. West. (There are nine such tanks across Hamilton as part of the City wastewater treatment system).

As the City website states:

First, a station bypass gate in the combined sewer overflow tank that should have been in a closed position appears to have been manually opened to approximately five per cent on January 28, 2014. An error in computer programming showed this as normal operation and, as such, this error remained undetected until July 2018. Additionally, a second gate that should have remained in the open position experienced a mechanical failure in January 2018. The sensor on this piece of equipment did not pick up the failure and was reporting normal operation.

The leaks appear to be a technical mistake, not an intentional error. They went unnoticed by City Public Works because the remote monitoring computer system for Hamilton's waste water treatment process lacked the capability and technical sophistication to spot these types of granular mechanical breakdowns. The system mistakenly saw what was happening at the bypass gates at the Main King overflow tanks as part of "normal operations," according to the City website.

The following is what the City put forth as its response to the incident. After the July 2018 discovery of the sewage leak, Hamilton reported the accident to the provincial Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks. There was also an effort to clean up Chedoke Creek where 242,000 litres of "floatable material" were removed, the City website states.

Plus, there has been regular water quality monitoring and "enhanced" inspections of wastewater facility and equipment. Finally, following a sampling in the affected water "a dramatic decrease" was observed in the amount of E. coli, reaching levels prior to the release of the untreated sewage. (Readers should appreciate that there are other contaminants stemming from the presence of metals, plastics and various chemicals in the untreated sewage.)

Complaints About Fecal Matter

At some point in the summer of 2018, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) got involved as the contamination from the spill spread and residents started complaining about fecal matter floating in the water.

Subsequently, the Hamilton district office of the MECP issued orders for an assessment of the damage to Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise and options for environment monitoring and remediation orders. This abatement office is the first point of contact at the MECP for those in the city lodging a complaint about spills, chemical leaks or emissions in the air.

There is also a parallel gathering of evidence and interviewing witnesses by another section of the MECP in situations where there is "significant impact to the environment," "risk" to human health and the parties involved are "repeat violators or show disregard for Ontario's environmental protection requirements," says a MECP spokesperson Gary Wheeler.

The seriousness of the spill and the possible prosecution, conviction and fining of the City of Hamilton under the Ontario Water Resources Act (possibly as high as $6 million in fines) perhaps explains the actions of the City to initially keep details of sewage confidential.

Whatever happens, municipalities like Hamilton are legally responsible for managing the treatment of sewage and thus liable for any discharges of untreated material into the natural environment.

Gary Wheeler adds that charges have to be laid within two years of his ministry becoming aware of the alleged violation of provincial environmental laws.

One possible outcome, says Dianne Saxe, the former Environmental Commissioner for Ontario in an August 5 interview with the Spectator is that in the end some settlement might also be reached between the MECP and the City.

Decision Not to Disclose Spill

What was especially astounding to people such as Lynda Lukasik, the executive director at Environment Hamilton, was that nobody at City Hall thought it was necessary to inform the RBG about the spill.

In an interview with Raise the Hammer, Hamilton Public Works director Dan McKinnon does not apologize for the decision by the City. "I don't think there was anything that the City could have done differently but I understand why (the RBG) feels the way they feel, and people can argue one way or the other, whether or not that was good legal advice. It is what it is. The City as an organization has to do what is best for the organization, and sometimes that may be at odds to what other people think we should do."

Officially, the decision by Hamilton City Council to keep the spill confidential came about because of the advice of its lawyer. "The matter was and continues to be the subject of an ongoing investigation by the MECP's Investigations & Enforcement Branch," the City website states.

Spectator columnist Andrew Dreschel countered in a column one day after his newspaper published its Sewergate exposé that a "cautious" lawyer has no business interfering with the democratic responsibility of elected representatives. "They (the councillors) obviously decided that cleaving to legal advice about limiting the City's exposure to potential regulatory fines and private law suits trumped the public's right to know about the full extent of the discharge," he wrote.

In retrospect, this decision by Council didn't make sense. Provincial orders requested the City to provide an assessment of the spill in Chedoke and Cootes Paradise and the solution required were already available publicly in the form of legal documents that any citizen could examine - if they knew about them outside the bubble of City Hall. (Note: improved public posting of this type of information in Hamilton has since been addressed through the posting of communications from the MECP on the City Hall website.)

Lynda Lukasik is urging the City to replace its lawyer and law firm who advised confidentiality. This same person works for a company which defends industrial polluters such as Dofasco, which sometimes runs into trouble for its polluting air emissions.

The Environment Hamilton director argues that it is not appropriate for a public body like a municipality that is answerable to a voting electorate to rely on a legal advisor focused primarily on "damage control" for corporate clients.

Complete Shock to RBG

The massive nature of the 24-billion litre sewage spill was a complete shock for Tys Thysmeyer, the head of natural areas for the RBG and a key player in the multi-decade effort to clean up and restore the Cootes Paradise. He called what transpired a "huge, huge setback for the marsh."

Before the Hamilton Spectator came out with its exposé (courtesy of an unidentified whistleblowing employee) Thysmeyer told the newspaper that he had already discovered "very puzzling results" from the RBG's own quality monitoring in the Hamilton watershed.

He and the RBG knew as early as July 2018 (at the same time as the City) about the leaking of smelly untreated sewage into Chedoke Creek, which had resulted (in his description) oxygen getting "sucked out of the water, " followed by "rampant algae growth" and the death of plants like water lilies. But nobody at the City at that time informed Theijsmeijer of the scale and enormity of the spill.

The RBG experienced a similar shunning a second time while the City was developing a response to the provincial MECP orders.

The first consulted hired, Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions, submitted a report that called for the removal in Chedoke Creek of nutrient and bacteriological contamination via a hydraulic dredging process.

The Wood proposal was rejected by Hamilton City Hall because of the potential cost, says Lukasik. "(It) was advocating within Chedoke Creek proper that there was a need for substantial remediation of the creek bed. The City decided they needed a second opinion."

SLR Report Suggests Major Remediation Not Needed

So, along came SLR Consulting, which essentially absolved the City from having to undertake a major remediation. Also, a surface water monitoring program for the area affected by the sewage spill was apparently not warranted.

"The assessment of available information does not show adverse impacts on aquatic vegetation and the fish community in Cootes Paradise associated with the CSO discharge, independent from other potential factors. Thus, remediation is not required to address impacts from the Main/King CSO discharge that occurred from 2014 to 2018, and the 'no action' alternative is recommended," SLR stated in its report.

SLR representative and professional biologist Gordon Wichert admitted, however, in an April 29, 2020 session with Hamilton councillors (sequestered in their homes by COVID-19) that he and his colleagues lacked sufficient time given by the province to fully examine and sample the critical areas of water, sediment, aquatic vegetation and fish in Cootes Paradise Marsh. Nonetheless, he was comfortable with the information at his fingertips from the data shared between the RBG and the City, which allowed his company to come to certain conclusions.

Wichert justified the decision by the SLR not to engage with Tys Theijsmeijer and the Royal Botanical Gardens directly, but instead include in the report what Lukasik says is an out-of-context 2012 quote from Theijsmeijer.

(For more details, you can see an interesting exchange on video between Councillor Wilson and Wichert from the April 29, 2020 Hamilton City Council meeting.)

Lukasik says the SLR report has no legitimacy. "It was framed in a way where it almost made it sound like the (RBG) was okay with things. And I thought, no, not only did they not talk to the RBG but to me this was incredible. As far as I am concerned, (SLR) didn't have the ability to go out there and do a proper assessment of what needed to happen, plain and simple."

In the end, Hamilton City Council accepted the SLR report on April 29, which was then sent to the MECP as the official City response to meet the latter's May 1 deadline.

Councillor Wilson refused to accept the report. She was both critical of the pressure to rubberstamp the SLR findings within a short time frame and how the RBG was treated. "The City should have consulted and worked with community stakeholders, particularly the RBG," she stated.

Hamilton is still waiting for a response from the province, which could accept or reject the City's assessment of the spill. After meeting the province's May 1 deadline, the City was asked almost a month later for additional information and clarification "to complete our review of the Chedoke Creek ecological assessment and better understand the City's methodology used to complete the assessment," says MECP spokesperson Gary Wheeler. Additional information was also given by the City on June 15.

"There's no mandated timeline for the ministry to evaluate the City's reports. However, considering the significance of this issue we have prioritized the review," the MECP spokesperson explains.

Future Remediation

Not everyone agrees with the City's position that that no further action is required following the spill. The Spectator remarked in an April 2020 editorial that it is difficult to imagine 24 billion litres of untreated sewage not leaving a polluting footprint on the local watershed, even after a portion of the spill reaches Lake Ontario.

There is also the wider context that contaminants, and pollutants enter Cootes Paradise within greater Hamilton from a variety of sources including local transportation, residential development, industry and agriculture.

The RBG, in a statement from its chief executive officer Mark Runciman, has already made it clear that: "our understanding of the ecological effects of this wastewater release differs quite significantly from the City of Hamilton's analysis."

He stated that the RBG's findings of "greater ecological damage and contamination to the bed of the marsh" and the possible need for dredging of Chedoke Creek are in line with the recommendations made by Wood, the first consulting company the City hired and rejected.

Finally, the RBG is talking to both the City of Hamilton and the MECP about future remediation in Cootes.

Runciman confirms that his staff do feel let down by the revelations in the Spectator late last year. "When you have stuff like (a massive sewage spill happens) you get somewhat frustrated, and say wow, what was that (remediation) effort for."

"We have photos of one year, and photos of another year. One has the sense that there were all kinds of aquatic plants here and the following year after all this, they are not there," he says.

At the same time, the RBG understands it has no choice but to continue to work with the City of Hamilton, which shares representation on the RBG board with Halton and the federal government. "I can assure you that I feel very comfortable that the City of Hamilton is doing their best to resolve all of this situation, and I look forward to those collaborative discussions in the future," Runciman stated during his interview with me.

More Resources Needed for Monitoring

The unanswered question is whether the RBG can meet local expectations in obtaining a complete picture of a post-spill Cootes Paradise. It is one thing to investigate small leaks of untreated sewage that invariably end up in Chedoke Creek - which is currently an unofficial City sewer - and quite another to tackle something much bigger and unprecedented like the 24 billion litre discharge, says Sigal Balshine.

The scientist notes that the RBG lacks the resources to do a full-blown investigation without the financial assistance and resources offered from other agencies such as Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans at the federal government level as well as other parties in the Hamilton Remediation Action Plan.

"That would take a lot of man/woman power and resources. (The RBG) have so much to do with the managed gardens and the massive amount of natural lands that they look after. It would be unfair to ask them to do this without giving them the resources to do so. They have the knowledge absolutely! They know the marsh best. They just are stretched thin as it is."

Balshine says that in order to fix the problem in Cootes Paradise, all of the relevant players have to be on the same page. She anticipates this is not out of question because of past commitments in the remediation but there is a caveat. "The question is who pays for it. What is the best point of action? What should be done. How do we clean up?"

If the manpower and research dollars are in place (the McMaster professor did not provide a number for the costs) the scientific investigation of the impact of the 24 billion spill could be accomplished within six months to a year, according to Balshine. "Researching the untreated sewage spill is expensive. They would have to look at organic and inorganic levels in the water and the sediments (where items like metal can stick around for a long time)."

Bioaccumulation of Contaminants

On the other hand, Hamiltonians may never receive a clear answer about Cootes and the spill while they are preoccupied with the ongoing pandemic, which also restricts the ability of scientists to do their sampling and fieldwork in groups at Cootes.

Balshine has been watching research in the Hamilton watershed up close. She investigates the impact of contaminants such as medication and popular personal body products that manage to slip through the sewage treatment process, enter the Hamilton creeks and marshes and collect in the fish. Her career began after becoming curious about the impact of contaminants on animal behaviour.

"Cootes Paradise is a significant breeding ground for fish. We have been monitoring over 30 species that are in our community," says Balshine.

Some fish such as carp (which the Hamilton Remediation Action Plan has worked hard to keep out of Cootes) and the round goby are more invasive species, tolerant of the untreated sewage. Others, like the largemouth bass, pike or walleye, are vulnerable.

The huge variety of birds which normally gather in the west end of Lake Ontario are also at risk. They will be catching fish affected by spill contaminants, says Jim Quinn, a biologist and bird specialist at McMaster.

"Fish-eating (piscivorous) birds are used as indicators of contaminant levels in aquatic ecosystems routinely. So, if some of the contaminants from the sewage spill are biomagnifying contaminants, the piscivores (Caspian terns, common terns, double-crested cormorants and to a lesser extent herring gulls, ring-billed gulls, and black-crowned night herons) will have them in spades if they are feeding in the area affected by the spill."

Update, 2020-09-03: Updated to correct the number of visitors to the RBG pre-COVID. It was more than 350,000 visitors a year, not more than 35,000 visitors. RTH regrets the error.

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton-based freelance journalist and the editor of an upcoming collection, Reclaiming Hamilton: Essays from the Ambitious City. He is also a member of Environment Hamilton.


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By Kevin (registered) | Posted September 03, 2020 at 21:40:28

Great article. Thanks for the hard work.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted September 06, 2020 at 18:27:17

Well that's a very powerful anecdote made up by a comedian who died well in advance of actuarial predictions, and relayed by an AIDS denialist, but no it is not recommended for us to foul our waterways with human fecal matter.

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