Ministry says city's 'do nothing approach' on Chedoke Creek unacceptable, orders cleanup

Ontario's Ministry of Environment has ordered Hamilton to take remedial steps to clean up after a spill that leaked billions of litres of sewage and stormwater into Chedoke creek, saying the city's "do nothing approach" is unacceptable.

City says staff will work with council to address the environmental concerns

A leak allowed an estimated 24 billion litres of untreated sewage to spill in Chedoke Creek over four years. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Ontario's Ministry of Environment has ordered Hamilton to take steps to clean up after a spill that leaked billions of litres of sewage and stormwater into Chedoke Creek, saying the city's "do nothing approach" is unacceptable.

The ministry "disagrees" with the city's recommended approach to take no action in Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise and is calling for dredging in the creek, wrote spokesperson Gary Wheeler in an email Friday.

Technical experts have determined the water quality continues to be impaired or may become impaired because of the "continued release of contaminants in sediment" in the area, he said.

"For example, the ministry's review of the data indicated the spill added approximately two years of additional annual average total phosphorus loading to the water system," wrote Wheeler.

"A 'do nothing approach' is unacceptable and does not address the potential for adverse effect as required by the Environmental Protection Act."

Mayor Fred Eisenberger did not agree with the ministry's characterization of how the city has responded to the spill.

"We're not at all in a do-thing approach," he said, saying the issue of waste getting into area waterways is a system-wide problem that's "decades-old."

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the city said it's committed to cooperating with the ministry's investigation. 

"Staff will be consulting with council regarding how we can best address the environmental concerns in Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise," it reads.

The city also outlined the actions it's taken so far, including removing 242,000 litres of "floatable material" from the creek, starting regular monitoring of water quality in the areas around it and hiring four staff members to help carry out inspections of its water infrastructure.

The mayor said the city anticipated an order from the ministry and that he was happy to receive it as "we want to get at this sooner rather than later."

Leak happened over 4 years

The situation began on Jan. 28, 2014, when a gate partially opened on an underground combined sewer overflow (CSO) tank at Main and King. The gate stayed open until July 18, 2018, which means for four years, a combined 24 billion litres of sewage and stormwater escaped, dumping into Chedoke Creek and flowing to Cootes Paradise and eventually Hamilton Harbour.

The ministry's order comes after councillors received a report from SLR Consulting that says it's hard to know if there was any long-term environmental damage done by the leak and that dredging it won't help.

Maureen Wilson, councillor for Ward 1 (west end), described the report as damning — not for the recommendation, but because Cootes Paradise is in such poor shape that a four-year sewage leak didn't change it. 

"If it's not impaired by the spillage of billions of litres [of sewage and stormwater], what does that tell us about the baseline?" she asked at the time, adding she read the report with "a heavy heart."

Back in February, Eisenberger said the damage from the Chedoke Creek spill appeared to be "more reputational than environmental."

"You're actually doing more harm than good by dredging," he said following the SLR report.

But the ministry disagrees.

Its order requires the city to take measures recommended from an original consultants' report that called for spot dredging in portions of the creek and to "further assess and propose other remedial options" for Cootes Paradise and the Western Hamilton Harbour area.

Eisenberger said the city will evaluate the order and follow up with the ministry to get a clearer picture of their expectations.

The question now is how much material should be dredged up.

He specifically pointed to references to targeted dredging in the order, "which says to me that I don't think they believe that dredging the entire creek and parts of Cootes Paradise is the way to go."

The mayor said staff will be providing a report in response to the order. He estimated the cost of the clean up "will be in the millions for sure."

The city is required to submit a remediation plan to the ministry by Jan. 22, 2021 which the ministry says will be reviewed by technical experts.

with files from Samantha Craggs


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