It started with a gate on a sewage holding tank somehow staying slightly ajar, and the system that should have detected the breach apparently failing. What has ensued is an environmental catastrophe where 24 Billion litres of raw sewage drained into Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise over the four and a half years it took to detect the problem by 2018. Hamilton Councillors have defended their decision to withhold the extent of the disaster claiming their lawyer warned them if they went public with the information that they could face fines of up to 6 Million dollars and that the 6 million dollar fine could be multiplied several times given the length of time the spill was underway. Had the story not been leaked to the Spectator, it might have been sometime next year, or maybe never, before the public would have known what happened.
The delay was supposedly in order to allow the Ministry of the Environment to conclude an investigation into the event. It is difficult to understand how public release of the magnitude and duration of the spill would have had any impact on any ultimate penalties since the same ministry had been told of the spill in July 2018. In fact even the Minister of Environment now says Council failed it’s citizens by not reporting the full details of the spill to the public when they first learned of it. City legal staff might want to make a note of that in case he City is fined by the Ministry for its belated disclosure as lawyers warned it might.
It was little comfort to hear Dr. Bart Harvey, associate medical officer of health, tell Coun. Lloyd Ferguson that last January’s decision to keep the issue under wraps did not put the public at risk; not because there wasn’t risk, but because the creek as of January, while horribly polluted, was no worse than it had been before the spill. He told council that even before the spill the e-coli levels in the creek were many times more than the allowable limit for so-called secondary recreation—boating and kayaking. The levels went off the chart during the spill period and then returned to their normal levels which are very unsafe. So we went back from unbelievably bad to really bad. There is signage along Chedoke Creek warning of the unsafe water, but not so much at Cootes Paradise into which the creek flows. And further downstream at Pier 4 Park, signs talk about not feeding geese, which had been in many minds the main source of e-coli bacteria. It turns out it might have been a bum rap for the honkers, or at the very minimum that they weren’t the only source of pollution.
The excuses made by council for stifling the information would have more credibility if we were not confronted with their track record in other areas. The information came to light in an election year, and we know that on a much less controversial issue –the possibility of an arena at Limeridge Mall that the mayor asked Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer to not make it an issue just before an election. There are other examples where trust was compromised. When former Councillor Donna Skelly asked for an operational review of the Waterfront Trust—the poster child for opacity—she couldn’t get a seconder; such was the climate of cronyism and intimidation around the council horseshoe. Council was again asleep a decade ago when millions of dollars used to fund a propaganda campaign for LRT were buried in the city road budget so as to escape detection. Former councillors and staff talk about how agendas are sometimes manipulated and staff reports sometimes screened by councillors before presentation. It’s been going on for a long time. It is a two-tier council with an informal group acting as an unelected Board of Control. Senior staff retire or are fired only to pop up as consultants to the city. Still councillors talk hopefully about “regaining trust,” as if there was much to lose with the latest incident.
In the 2018 election our neighbours in Niagara rose up and kicked out almost the entire ethically-challenged regional council. They were sick of the cronyism and questionable governance. In the same year Burlington voters turned on most of their career politicians. In 2014 the citizens of Brampton did something similar. If there is a yearning to see Hamilton follow suit, the planning and organization of such a reform movement has to start now—ward by ward.