Alarming bacteria levels in major Hamilton creek

New Environment Hamilton water tests have found startling levels of E. coli and total coliform in Red Hill and Davis creeks.

Environment Hamilton testing shows high E. coli and total coliform

Outfall pipes such as this one are causing high numbers of E. coli and total coliform, which is flowing into Red Hill Creek and possibly Lake Ontario, new Environment Hamilton tests show. (Mark Chambers/CBC)

New Environment Hamilton water tests have found startling levels of E. coli and total coliform in Red Hill and Davis creeks.

The environmental group, through its citizen-driven Pipewatch program, has found E. coli levels as high as 280 times the provincial limit around the creek's storm and sewer outfall pipes.

The highest levels were found near where the Red Hill Valley Parkway crosses over Barton Street East, where testing showed 28,000 E. coli per 100 ml of water. That's 280 times the provincial recreational limit of 100, and higher than the city's limit of 2,400.

"In a way, it was almost a validation because we knew something was wrong," said Katie Stiel, Environment Hamilton project manager. "This unfortunately confirms that our fears were true, and that something needs to be done to fully address this issue."

For the last three months, Pipewatch volunteers have monitored outfall pipes around their homes in McQuesten, Valley Park, Quigley/Greenhill and Rosedale.

They found condoms and tampons obviously flushed down toilets, as well as thick algae and a pungent stench. This happened whether there had been heavy rainfall or not, Stiel said.

Waste that appears to have been flushed down toilets is appearing the creek. (Mark Chambers/CBC)

Environment Hamilton also did water testing. Recent lab results show illegally high limits of E. coli and total coliform at every testing site.

The only exception was Valley Park at the end of Mistywood Drive, which only had 2,000 E. coli, but had a total coliform level of 31,000. The provincial limit for total coliform is 1,000.

'Serious health issues'

At Valley Park north of Mud Street, there was an "extreme sewage smell," Stiel told the crowd at a public meeting Monday.

That area also had an E. coli level of 17,000, and total coliform of 81,000, Stiel said.

At Quigley and Greenhill, the E. coli was at 12,000 and total coliform at 56,000.

If left unchecked, Stiel said, people could be in danger.

"My biggest fear is that kids will continue to keep playing in these levels of bacteria," she said. "If they are going in there with scrapes on their feet or cuts, this bacteria is seeping in and that could lead to serious health issues."

Not the first time

This is not the first time the city has grappled with high bacteria levels in the creek, which eventually flows into Lake Ontario.

In December 2001, the Ministry of Environment (MOE) ordered the city to analyze discharge from every outfall. When the city failed to do so in the set timeline, it was referred back to the MOE.

Environment Hamilton sampling at the time found discharges containing fecal matter and sanitary debris, and E. coli 160 times higher than the allowable level, Stiel said.

The city is concerned about these levels too, said Coun. Sam Merulla, whose ward borders the Red Hill Creek. He would like to see the lab results confirmed by another source and the issue investigated by the city and MOE.

"We will continue to pressure MOE to be involved and assess our own operations. If anything is awry, we need to investigate that yesterday," Merulla said.

City is invested

In a media release Monday, Merulla and Coun. Chad Collins said the city has made "significant investments" to the creek. This includes a Greenhill Combined Sewer Outflow tank and 16 new storm water management ponds. It also maintains "a number of ongoing operational projects" to protect the Red Hill Creek.

The city has programs in place to monitor the pipes, Stiel said. But when she and Environment Hamilton executive director Lynda Lukasik went to the sites, few had paths leading to them and many were inaccessible.

"There was no indicator that people had been visiting on a regular basis," she said. "That was the first red flag for us, so we have to ask, why isn't more being done?"

Environment Hamilton consulted with the public Monday night on what happens next. Merulla agrees that it needs to be addressed, and the issue "has the support of council."

"The question is what is broken and how quickly we can fix it," he said.

An illustration of the bacteria levels in Red Hill Creek.