Councillors vote to add 5 staff to inspect sewage system, monitor water after spill

The new roles would include four full-time staff to carry out "enhanced inspections" of Hamilton's massive system and one person who would sample water quality at a cost of just under $500,000.

Hamilton ratepayers could face an average $29 hike for wastewater services next year

Hamilton councillors voted in support of a motion that would add five full-time staff to increase sewage system inspections and water monitoring following a leak that allowed an estimated 24 billion litres of untreated sewage to spill in Chedoke Creek. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Hamilton councillors have voted in favour of hiring five people to physically inspect the city's wastewater system following a leak that allowed an estimated 24 billion litres of sewage and stormwater to spill over more than four years.

The new roles would include four full-time staff to carry out "enhanced inspections" of Hamilton's massive system and one person who would sample water quality at a cost of just under $500,000.

Currently staff rely on sensors to remotely monitor the system, but a bypass gate in one of the city's combined sewer overflow (CSO) tanks was left open without notification since Jan. 2014, allowing stormwater and untreated waste to leak into Chedoke Creek until it was discovered, and stopped, in July 2018.

"Obviously automation failed us," said Coun. Tom Jackson, who brought the motion before the city's General Issues Committee Monday. 

The committee voted 11-0 in support of the 2020 recommended water, wastewater and stormwater budget, including the five new positions.

That budget includes a hike of of 4.11 per cent for sewer and water services — about $29 more per household for the average bill. The budget will now go before council for approval.

Environmental groups and residents have expressed shock, anger and disbelief in the days after it was first revealed by the Hamilton Spectator that the city knew about both the volume and length of the leak back in January, but elected not to inform the public.

Andrew Grice, the head of Hamilton water, said while council has been shouldering the brunt of that reaction, his staff are feeling its effects, too.

"Not a day goes by where that doesn't eat me inside," he told the committee. "Our duty is to protect the environment … it's certainly not something that sits very well with me or any of my staff."

He explained that Hamilton's system features 27 CSO tanks, 14 of which are monitored, while 13 are not. 

Coun. Brad Clark, who seconded Jackson's motion, suggested an amendment that would include adding those 14 monitored overflow points to a new, public notification process.

Ferguson says someone 'betrayed' council

Coun. Lloyd Ferguson, who chairs the city's public works committee, said he received lots of "nasty" emails over the weekend, adding he objects to the characterization that the city covered up the spill.

The councillor said council's intent was simply to wait until an investigation by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) was complete.

"Unfortunately, someone in this room betrayed us and caused all this unnecessary alarm to go out there."

The City of Hamilton says a gate that was left slightly open, allowing the sewage and runoff to flow into the creek unnoticed. (City of Hamilton)

Ferguson also asked if city staff are in favour of Jackson's motion and whether in-person inspections are "superior" to the sensors the city currently relies on.

Grice said they "absolutely" support it.

"This is a gap in our program right now, the ability to get boots on the ground at every single one of our stations and this is certainly going to be a step in the right direction for us to gain more visibility on our program areas," he explained.

Chedoke Creek sewage spill

2 years ago
24 billion litres of sewage and stormwater have spilled into Chedoke Creek in Hamilton over four and a half years. 0:44

The councillor followed up by asking if there had been a sensor on the "infamous gate" that was left open, would it have sent some sort of signal that it wasn't fully closed?

"I can't answer that question with 100 per cent certainly, but certainly the approach going forward will ensure that if the sensors don't work we'll have a different form of surveillance there to help us out," said Dan McKinnon, the city's general manager of public works.

Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger has yet to respond to the spill.

A spokesperson replied to a request for comment saying the mayor is returning from a trade trip to India and still "in transit" and he won't be back in the office until Wednesday's city council meeting.

Burlington mayor says public had a right to know

Meanwhile, Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward said she was disturbed by the amount of untreated sewage that was allowed to leak and the duration.

The city shares water and shoreline with Hamilton, but Meed Ward said officials in Burlington weren't notified about those details either. She found out from media reports.

"What has been reported so far is very disturbing. It should be a concern to all of us and at this point we have far more questions than answers," she said.

Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward said she believes the public had a right to know about the leak. (Marianne Meed Ward/Facebook)

"I think first and foremost the public had a right to know what was happening and there should be mandatory release of information whenever there's an impact to air, water or land."

The mayor said she has contacted  conservation authorities, along with Hamilton officials, including Eisenberger, to talk about the leak. 

"Burlington is here to help. We're here to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it doesn't happen again.