City should apologize over Chedoke Creek spill and make reports public, councillors say
'What the city did here was wrong and very harmful,' says Ontario's former environmental commissioner
Two Hamilton city councillors say the city owes residents an apology over its secrecy about a leak that spilled an estimated 24 billion litres of sewage and stormwater runoff spilled into Chedoke Creek over four years, and say that all the reports should be made public.
And a former Ontario environmental commissioner says the city's reasons for keeping the details of under wraps are only partially valid.
Maureen Wilson, Ward 1 (west end) councillor, and Nrinder Nann, Ward 3 (central lower city) councillor, said in a joint statement Friday that the information should be made public. They want city staff to publicly release "any and all reports" related to the discharge since the incident was discovered last July.
The city also needs to "issue a formal apology" to residents for not telling them about the full extent of the spill, they said.
"Trust and confidence are the fundamental principles we seek to uphold in everything we do as elected representatives," the councillors said in a joint statement.
Their motion will come to council Nov. 27.
The leak was reported and known about in July 2018, and fixed not long after. But the news of the full extent of the discharge came out this week. City council had a vigorous debate in January over whether a report should be public. The report remained private, some councillors say, after legal advice saying public disclosure would harm the city's ability to defend itself from major fines.
Dianne Saxe, an environmental lawyer and former provincial environmental commissioner, says while there is some merit to the legal argument, it shouldn't have stopped the city from telling people about the magnitude of the discharge overall.
Public disclosure, she said, doesn't impact whether the ministry lays fines. But the city could keep details of how it happened and other details to protect its defence in court.
"As for the actual occurrence," she said, "there's no benefit in keeping that secret."
The Hamilton Spectator unveiled news this week of a confidential January report councillors voted then to keep under wraps. On Wednesday, the city issued a media release saying the stormwater and untreated sewage had spilled through a gate that had been left slightly open since January 2014.
It was the first time the public had heard about the spill since it was discovered in July 2018, and residents were warned to stay away from the water.
Saxe says if the province fined the city it would be "in the many millions," she said. "The spill involved an enormous quantity and lasted for a very long period of time."
Such a fine wouldn't help the environment though, she said. It would go into the general provincial coffers and rob the city of money it could spend on remediation.
"What the city did here was wrong and very harmful," she said. "But (a fine) would be compounding the environmental damage that's been done."
Leaks from combined sewer overflow tanks (CSOs) aren't unusual, Saxe said, although the magnitude of this one is noteworthy. In a provincial Back to Basics report, Saxe outlined the "enormous number of CSO overflows" in the province. She wants to see more public notification and ministry oversight.
As for the ministry, it says the city didn't notify it of any issues with the system until last July. The city is required, the ministry says, to report any operating problems and corrective actions it takes.
The province issued an order to the city on Aug. 2, 2018. That required it to quantify the amount of sewage and what was in the sewage discharged to the creek, evaluate the impacts to the creek, and assess the need for remediation, among other tasks.
The ministry issued another order on Nov. 14, says spokesperson Gary Wheeler, requiring an updated report clarifying and confirming the impacts to the creek, and how it would remediate it and monitor it in the future.
The investigations and enforcement branch is investigating now.
Kristen Villebrun, a local Indigenous water activist, said she noticed the contamination. She was building inukshuks along the water to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
She noticed a sewage smell along the creek, she said, that worsened the closer she got to Cootes Paradise. She told the city, she said, and she was "more or less dismissed."
Villebrun and her friend Wendy Bush later floated on a raft for three days to call attention to the water quality. She and other Indigenous women also do an annual water walk around the harbour.
"I'm angry," Villebrun said. "I spoke a lot in public, and a lot of people didn't want to believe because they were told."
Chris McLaughlin, executive director of the Bay Area Restoration Council, says this has created an "uphill battle" in the years-long effort to change public perception of Hamilton Harbour.
The harbour has improved a lot in recent years, he said. He doesn't want people to see headlines and assume it's all bad news.
Having said that, "it's profoundly disappointing that this whole episode has occurred," he said, "and that more proactive steps weren't taken to address the issue.
"It was allowed to slide for so long to the point where the city is left dealing with a public relations issue that's a year and a half old, after the problem was resolved in 2018."