Is it time for Hamiltonians to start testing their own waterways for sewage?
Lake Ontario Waterkeeprs are standing by with the instructions on how to do it.
Mark Mattson is an environmental lawyer and President of Lake Ontario Waterkeepers. He’s been following news of the four year, 24-billion-litre sewage spill into Chedoke Creek, kept secret by the city, and revealed by the Hamilton Spectator.
“It’s terrible to think we don’t have the technology to catch that kind of spill. For the city and province not to share the information, the public should be notified immediately.”
After a similar secret spill in Kingston, Lake Ontario Waterkeepers set up programs to help citizens do their own water testing.
“We did talk about community monitoring hubs in Hamilton and making sure all the creeks and outfalls were monitored for bacteria. It didn’t come about. I think Hamilton’s really going to reconsider that and start monitoring the watershed,” Mattson says.
Though Chedoke Creek, Cootes Paradise and Hamiltom Harbour are currently monitored by seven agencies through 40 studies, no one picked up the four-year leak of 24 billion litres of sewage from a combined sewer overflow holding tank into Chedoke Creek. A second malfunction at the CSO in 2018 gushed more sewage. That leak was reported by a citizen.
There appears to be a failure to communicate.
“Absolutely,” says Alan Hansell, Executive Director of the Stewards of Cootes Watershed.
“It’s hodge podge it could have been caught. There should be comprehensive testing and the city has a lab to do that, Hansell says.
While watershed volunteers wear thorough protection when working around water, and no rashes or other signs of contact with highly contaminated water have been reported, he said it would be good to be forewarned about high bacteria counts.
At Wednesday nights tense Hamilton city council meeting, Associate Medical Officer of Health Bart Harvey confirmed that the Hamilton Conservation Authority regularly tests Chedoke Creek for e. coli and a host of other contaminants but “Public Health doesn’t get the results,” Harvey told council.
Many scientists say Hamilton Harbour and its watershed is one of the most intensively studied bodies of water in Canada.
In 2017 the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan published its 100-page monitoring catalog listing 40 monitoring programs by seven different agencies. The monitoring catalogs by the way go back to 2004. The RAP program was started after Hamilton Harbour was listed as a Great Lakes toxic hot spot in the 1980’s.
The monitoring tests water samples from creeks, including Chedoke, Cootes Paradise and the harbour and also monitors the health of birds, fish and plants.
The Hamilton Conservation Authority since 2014 has been doing bi-weekly sampling of the creeks draining into Cootes Paradise, “with same day drop off for analysis at the City of Hamilton Regional Environmental Lab,” according to the monitoring report. Those results belong to the HCA and are not reviewed by the lab.
In an interview with the Bay Observer, Doctor Harvey explained that the focus of Public Health is the safety of drinking water, and swimming beaches.
“The notion of testing of and results from essentially waterways that would be not used as beaches and not used to draw drinking water, public health would not have a mandate in doing that. The reality is paddling, canoeing, whatever, in practice are not associated with people getting ill.”
As a result of the Chedoke spill however, Harvey added Public Health will reexamine reports back to 2013 to see if there were cases of ill health reported as a result of exposure to water with high bacteria contamination.
So it’s clear, that it’s not clear how many different departments within the city saw various test results on water in creeks, Cootes and the harbour.
Redeemer University College tested water from creeks flowing into Cootes Paradise over five years but noted in a report to RAP that in 2015:
“While many sample sites had decent water quality, a number of sites, most notably in the Chedoke Creek subwatershed, routinely contained high levels of nitrate-N, phosphate-P, E.coli, and total chloroform. These data indicate likely contamination with urban sewage.”
Kristin O’Connor, Coordinator of theHamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan says the monitoring report is simply a catalogue for all the monitoring programs going on around Hamilton Harbour.
She did convene a meeting in 2018 for the groups monitoring Chedoke Creek.
“My purpose was to coordinate their efforts and maximize coverage along Chedoke Creek to attempt to have the best data set possible for this challenging area.”
It was intended to be a one-off meeting but O’Connor concludes, “In retrospect, when our technical committees meet next and look back at the 2014-2018 data, perhaps they will see something; however, at the time our focus was on looking for other unmanaged sources, not an assumption of a CSO control failure.”
Though it was hard to piece it together, 2018 was shaping up as a perfect storm for our creeks, marshes and the harbour.
There was the so called one off-sewage spill into Chedoke Creek which was first caught by a citizen.
Then warm temperatures and calm days lead to a blue green algae bloom that turned creeks, and parts of Cootes and the harbour into a glowing green soup. By September it was stinking like an outhouse.
I asked the city’s Public Works and the Public Health department if there was sewage mixed into the lumpy layers of scum. The answer was no.
A few days later I interviewed Arthur Zastepa, research scientist for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada. In his office at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters he looked at photos of the blue green algae bloom.
“It’s cracking and crusty, I see some foaming, purple colour, could be some fungus, it’s quite complicated,” he said of the lumpy mass.
After years studying the complex collection of organisms living in Hamilton Harbour water Zastepa takes a measured view.
“You see an event like this and think oh wow this is bad, the worst. You have to take a step back and figure out why it happened.”
We were speaking of course, before the city revealed the duration and magnitude of the sewage spill. But the casualty of the ensuing coverup, or delay in releasing information as the city called it, is that we mistrust the answers we get from public officials.
It was interesting and disturbing to note that during the November 27 Hamilton city council meeting, not once was the plight of fish, insects, birds or plants mentioned by council or staff. All focus was on potential impacts to human health.
It’s some consolation to know that others are watching out for the impact of the sewage spill on our fragile ecosystem.
The Federal Government may use the Fisheries Act to lay charges against the city for “the deposit of deleterious substances into water frequented by fish.”
“Environment and Climate Change Canada is aware of the Hamilton incident,” ECCC spokesperson Gabrielle Lamontagne said in an email to Bay Observer.
“Canadians can rest assured that ECCC’s Enforcement Branch will not hesitate to enforce Canada’s environmental laws and regulations when sufficient evidence of a violation is found.”
From his perch along Cootes Paradise marsh, Tӱs Theijsmeijer sees the evidence everyday of what the sewage spill did in 2018.
-all the plants in the main body of the marsh died
-oxygen levels were near zero for much of the summer
-critters at the bottom of the marsh likely died
-insects died so the birds that feed on them left the area-notably swallows
In 2019 he noted water flowing from Cootes was 50% cleaner after “better control of sewage spills.”
While so many are feeling bruised, disheartened and mad over the handling of the sewage spill,
Alan Hansell of the Stewards of the Cootes Watershed sees it as a learning opportunity.
“Sewage is in our system, in our watershed, it’s disgusting, but people need to know about it.”
He credits the city with being ahead of many municipalities by building the combined sewer overflows starting in the 1980s.
“There are a lot of good people at Public Works doing good things, I’m hoping this leads us to set some lofty goals, to build a system free of sewage discharges, but we need to keep the heat on.”
It took years for Hamilton to change its image as a dirty, polluted city. The sewage leak story is a terrible blow to that. In letters to the editor at the Hamilton Spectator people are calling Cootes Paradise a cesspool. That’s got to be crushing for Theijsmeijer and volunteers like the Stewards of the Cootes Watershed who have put over 12,000 hours into cleanup events.
Knee-jerk reactions to the spill need to be avoided. Do we really need five new employees making $100,000 a year each to monitor CSO’s? Is dredging the best way to restore the health of Chedoke Creek?
Last September after citizens complained about the smell and look of the blue green algae bloom in the harbour, the city hired a company to vacuum up the thick mats of gunk. Blue green algae by the way is actually cyanobacteria. Sometimes its toxic and sometimes it’s not. When the trucks were full they drove a couple blocks away and dumped the algae down the sewer. I asked the city how wise this was and was told it’s fine, it’s mixed with a lot of water.
Maybe it’s fine, maybe it’s not but the revelations coming out of city hall in the last weeks have made us all more suspicious and skeptical.
Citizen Science may have a big role to play in the future, when you consider that when Chedoke Creek was at its worst last summer, not one city employee raised a red flag and it took a citizen to report the spill that killed so much of Cootes Paradise ecosystem.
This story will continue to change as more spill documents are released, but one constant will remain, citizens need to be engaged with their eyes, ears, and noses.