His presentation to Hamilton councillors last month flew below the media radar, but Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan Coordinator John Hall painted an optimistic picture of the future water quality in Hamilton Harbour. Hall told councillors that once the toxic chemicals at Randle Reef are capped—a project finally underway—the next step will be a war on phosphorus which he describes as an even greater threat than Randle Reef. “Once a toxic material (like the Randle Reef coal tar) is eliminated or contained then these contaminants stop having a life of their own,” he told the Bay Observer. “Phosphorus on the other hand is a nutrient that causes accelerated growth of algae which eventually overwhelm the types of plants that support fish and a healthy ecosystem.”
Already significant progress has been made in reducing phosphorus in the bay. In 1973 the concentration of phosphorus was 160 milligrams per litre, by 1983 that was cut in half, in part because the makers of detergent, a major source of phosphorus, changed their formulas to reduce the chemical. Today that concentration is down to 40 milligrams per litre; and with the upgrades underway or proposed for the Hamilton and Burlington sewage treatment plants, the amount of phosphorus will he cut in half again by 2021. The chemical cannot be eliminated completely because much of it is created through human waste.
Surprisingly to some, Hamilton’s heavy industry is not a significant contributor to chemical discharges in the bay. “A lot of people are under the impression that industry discharges into the harbour,” said Hall, “but since 1980 such discharges are regulated, and now industry returns water to the harbour that is the same or cleaner than what was taken out. Industry is not the problem, all of the community is the problem.” John Hall says once the sewage treatment plant upgrades are complete the facilities will be among the best in North America.
For his part, Dan McKinnon, Hamilton’s Director of Water is excited to be launching the water treatment upgrades which will see $320 Million spent over a four year construction phase. The federal Government and Ontario each kicked in $100 Million with the city providing the balance. Commissioning is set for 2020-21. “This will dramatically improve our ability to reduce suspended solids leaving the plant and in turn help to reduce phosphorus entering the harbour as well,” said McKinnon. He says we can expect to see reductions in ammonia and e-coli as well. At peak construction the city will be spending $16 Million a month. At the same time the city will enter into a public-private partnership to finally deal with sewage sludge which has been at the centre of controversy over the current disposal practice of spreading the bio solid material on agricultural land. Says Dan McKinnon, all of the upgrades, “will set the city up very well for the future from a wastewater treatment perspective.”
The improvements in Hamilton Harbour water quality have been coming along slowly but steadily, says John Hall. “When we first started there were very few submerged aquatic plans, which are absolutely essential to the fish population. By the mid 90’s we crossed a threshold and quality water plants started coming back. Now aquatic plants are growing nicely.” The Ministry of Natural Resources have been stocking the Harbour with walleye and currently the population of the sport fish is on a par with that of the Bay of Quinte. Over the next five year fish will be monitored to see if they will naturally reproduce.
John Hall says the water in Hamilton Harbour is actually safe for swimming now if one is sufficiently offshore. The ongoing problem with bird feces contaminating the bathing beaches at Pier 4 and Bayfront Parks is not a water management problem but a wildlife issue that needs to be addressed, he says. Looking back to when the RAP projects first began, John Hall admits there were times when the team really doubted if they would be successful. Now he says he can look around the corner to 2021 and see the cleanup dream fulfilled.
Written by: John Best