Hamilton

Ontario government investigating month-long Stoney Creek acid leak into Lake Ontario

The Ontario government is investigating an acid leak in Stoney Creek that has been going on for at least a month and draining into Lake Ontario.

Bartek Ingredients submitted a report on Friday to the city of Hamilton and the Ontario government

Food-grade acid from Bartek Ingredients in Stoney Creek has been leaking into Lake Ontario for at least a month. The provincial government is investigating and the city of Hamilton says the acid may have travelled at least eight kilometres east toward a conservation area. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The Ontario government is investigating an acid leak in Stoney Creek that has been draining into Lake Ontario for at least a month and flowing near a conservation area roughly eight kilometres away.

Andrew Grice, director of Hamilton Water, tells CBC News a resident called from near Cherry Beach Park about a "sewage odour."

That prompted a response from the city, which then led Bartek Ingredients to do its own investigation and report a spill of food-grade acid into a ditch along Belgraden Avenue in Stoney Creek to the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks on June 4.

That ditch is right along the property line of the company, which claims to be the world's largest producer of malic acid and food-grade fumaric acid — common food additives.

"No leaks from tanks at Bartek have been detected so far, however the company reported an acidic discharge to the roadside ditch due to cracks having been found in the concrete of their containment facility," read a statement from ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler.

Bartek Ingredients said it only learned of the leak after the city installed a new culvert into a ditch along the property line. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)
It's unclear if the holes in the soil beneath Batek Ingredients' walls are the source of the acid leak that has seeped into Lake Ontario for at least a month, but the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks told CBC News the leak is caused by cracks in the concrete of their containment facility (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Bartek told CBC News in a statement it only found out about the leak after the City of Hamilton installed a new culvert in the ditch — that indicates acid may have been seeping into Lake Ontario before June.

The company said it is following all orders from the ministry and the city.

Acid flowing into Lake Ontario and beyond

Acid from Bartek Ingredients has made some of the water in the nearby ditch jet black. This picture from July 8 shows the darkness of the water. Another visit on July 12 showed no improvement. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Wheeler explained an environmental officer visited the site on July 6 and reported that the water was clear and had no signs of odours downstream.

When CBC News visited the site on July 8, water in the ditch near the site resembled black ink. There was also a foot-sized hole near a driveway into the site. The walls around the site near the ditch were cracked. The area smelled, but it's unclear if the smell came from the water or the Bartek plant and other factories nearby.

Despite Bartek installing a pump to try and stop the leak from draining toward Lake Ontario, water in the ditch just beyond the facility is black in this picture from July 8. As water continues down the ditch, it becomes clearer, but with each section of pipe, the darkness emerges. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Another visit four days later showed the water was still black and murky. Some spots are clearer as water runs down the ditch, but the acid appears to travel the entire length of the drain.

The outfall empties into Lake Ontario. The lakewater near the drain is also dark.

The city confirmed with CBC News it did investigate in the area to ensure the sewer system was operating as intended but "found nothing abnormal."

Acid from Bartek Ingredients turns water in Lake Ontario into a murky, dark grey on July 12. While the rest of the lake appears to be relatively normal, it's unclear how much damage has been done — and for how long. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)
Lake Ontario water near an outfall is dark grey from acid leaking out of Bartek Ingredients in Stoney Creek. Local environmental experts and activists worry what impact it will have on the local ecosystem. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

A city spokesperson confirmed the acid may have reached near the Fifty Point Conservation Area, about eight kilometres east in Grimsby, but Grice isn't so sure.

"From what we can tell, we're not seeing any long-term impacts and it's being restored quite well, so we're not doing any futher investigation besides continuing to watch this," he said.

Scott Peck, Hamilton Conservation Area's deputy chief administrative officer, told CBC News he has "no record or knowledge regarding a sewage spill and our current water quality for swimming is good."

Leak has potential to kill fish

The ministry confirmed malic acid was not found in the leak. That means the leak is likely food-grade fumaric acid. 

A document from the International Labour Organization and World Health Organization notes fumaric acid "is harmful to aquatic organisms."

Other documents indicate fumaric acid can survive in water for weeks and at 245 milligrams per litre, fumaric acid will kill freshwater fish in 48 hours.

The green hose at the end of the ditch beside Bartek appears to be an effort to contain the leak by pumping it out of the ditch. The leak appears to be strongest just beyond the pump. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The ministry said Bartek has worked to divert water from the ditch to their wastewater neutralization system. It is also repairing the concrete containment facility located beneath the tanks and hired a consultant to help respond to the leak. But it's unclear how much acid has escaped.

Bartek submitted a report to the ministry and the city on Friday outlining any impacts to groundwater, surface water, soil, and other potential clean-up measures.

Local experts and activists concerned

Lynda Lukasik, Environment Hamilton executive director, told CBC News the leak is concerning.

"If they've got serious structural issues with the containment system, that worries me for sure," she said.

Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, said if the leak enters Lake Ontario, it would likely be diluted by the large body of water. But she said it the acid was an issue nonetheless. (Laura Howells/CBC)

She also wonders what exactly made it into the water, if in fact the leak started before June, and how far the leak travelled.

"The bigger issue is if it ended up in a ditch or creek with any local fish or anything in it where this could be at a higher concentration," Lukasik explained.

Kristen Villebrun, who is Anishinaabe and also known as Wassode nibi kwe (Shining Water Woman), is a local Indigenous water activist (also called a Water Walker).

She was upset to hear acid has been leaking out of the facility and said the public had the right to know about it as soon as Bartek Ingredients reported it.

Indigenous Water Walker Kristen Villebrun was upset to hear the public didn't know about the leak earlier. She fears animals have died because of the acid. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"The water belongs to everyone. Those creatures that live in there, that's their home. Water is alive, it remembers what you do to it," she told CBC News.

"'Oh, it was an accident,' Do the creatures that live in that water know that?'"

About the Author

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

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