Chedoke leak: What the group watching over the harbour cleanup wants you to know

Chris McLaughlin is worried the damage caused by the Chedoke Creek sewage spill could impact more than just the environment. He's concerned the leak will also harm the harbour's reputation.

BARC worries reputational damage from the sewage leak could last long after cleanup

Chris McLaughlin is the executive director of the Bay Area Restoration Council. (Supplied by Chris McLaughlin)

As Chris McLaughlin watched news of the massive Chedoke Creek sewage spill spread, he noticed something else had seemingly surfaced along with it — Hamilton's reputation as a dirty, polluted place.

Now he's worried the leak will overshadow efforts to rehabilitate the city's water and leave damage to its reputation that could last long after the sewage and runoff washes away.

Over the past week or so, the fact that a bypass gate was left slightly open allowing an estimated 24 billion litres of untreated sewage and storm water to flow into the creek over more than four years made headlines and left many residents outraged.

McLaughlin is the executive director of the Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC), which has devoted the past 25 years to taking on water-related issues and restoring Hamilton Harbour. 

He, along with residents across the city, was angry and discouraged to learn about the leak. McLaughlin said he's hoping those emotions can drive lasting change, but first he wants to combat the deluge of misinformation that followed the spill.

"A lot of the past week I spent trying to accurately reflect the extent of this problem, the nature of the problem and where we go from here," he said.

"It's especially disheartening to make the national news, yet again in 2019, why? because of a crappy harbour."

One aspect of the spill that may be difficult for people to wrap their heads around is that the combine-sewage overflow tank where the leak happened is actually a facility that water-watchers are in favour of. 

"The tank that broke is something that has improved our water over the last 30 years tremendously," said McLaughlin. "It's a shame this is happening because as everybody in Hamilton is aware, we have a bad reputation for pollution."

That reputation may have been deserved in years past, but Hamilton has invested millions is trying to clean up its act around water, said McLaughlin. Nowadays the struggles it continues to face are shared by other large cites around the Great Lakes.

Check out Hamilton's largest CSO tank

3 years ago
Duration 1:06
Here's a look at the combined sewage overflow tank that leaked around 24 billion litres of runoff and sewage into Chedoke Creek over more than four years.

McLaughlin said he's seen people online discussing the spill using the present tense, despite that it happened between Jan. 28, 2014 and July 2018, when it was finally discovered and stopped.

The more recent scandal has been around the fact the city knew the volume and duration of the spill, but decided not to tell residents, arguing they were following legal advice. Council has since formally apologized and released some, but not all confidential reports about it.

Big difference between raw and untreated sewage

McLaughlin said he's also seen mentions of "raw sewage" making its way into the creek, which is incorrect.

The correct term is untreated sewage, he said, and much of that 24 billion litres was actually runoff, not just excrement.

"It's mostly storm water," McLaughlin explained. "There's quite a difference between raw sewage and untreated combined sewer overflow."

Others have raised questions about whether or not they were exposed to harmful bacteria during the years where the leak was happening.

Crews used a containment boom and a special snowplow-like attachment on a boat to clean up some of the discharge when the leak was discovered in July 2018. (City of Hamilton)

McLaughlin pointed to social media posts about people who launched their kayaks or canoes at West Pond, about 400 metres upstream of the leak.

"The bacteria don't swim upstream," he said. "I saw a lot of alarm in areas where there would not have been cause for concern."

Health officials have pointed out that signs warning people to stay out of the water in the creek were posted even before the spill as the sewage system sometimes discharges into it.

They also issued a public warning in July 2018 when the leak was discovered and a large scale cleanup took place. Health officials haven't found any evidence that the health of Hamiltonians was put at risk by the way the city handled the leak, so far.

A more comprehensive examination of records will be carried out as part of council's response to public outcry around how they handled the situation.

No downplaying severe impact of spill

Tys Theijsmeijer, head of natural areas at the Royal Botanical Gardens, previously told CBC he was shocked by how long the leak went on.

"It set us back a lot of years," he added. "To see we were actually going backwards, it was difficult for sure."

BARC and the RBG have teamed up to complete harbour-wide water sampling since 2016. The 30 samples they collected in July 2018 following the spill showed E. coli was "almost totally absent," said McLaughlin.

He repeatedly said he's not trying to minimize the severe impact of the spill, but said clarity around such a messy topic is important, especially when it comes to understanding the impact on the creek and Cootes Paradise where thousands of volunteers have spent countless hours helping rehabilitate the wetland.

"I've seen people suggesting that all of their efforts over the years as a volunteer meant nothing," said McLaughlin. "Nothing can be further from the truth."

He, like many others, is waiting for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks to finish its investigation so residents can finally get the "full story."

The city says 24 billion litres of sewage and stormwater drained into Chedoke Creek over a four-year period that ended last summer. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

BARC is planning to launch two new initiatives next year — a citizen shoreline monitoring program and a watershed-wide exercise focused on ways to better-develop land to manage runoff.

"To the greatest extent we can allow water to behave like water the better off we'll be," he said, referencing the buildup that's surrounded the creek for years, including Highway 403 and garbage dumping, which all drag down water quality.

Focusing on lasting change

In the meantime, he's hoping the outrage around the spill leads to the city taking a hard look at investing to improve water quality and creating lasting change.

"It's important to take a positive approach and a hopeful approach that this will encourage the city ... to rally everyone around coming up with a shared solution and a positive message for people," said McLaughlin, adding he doesn't want to see officials carry out some kind of knee-jerk reaction.

"I'd like to see a thoughtful and strategic approach to dealing with not only what's there from dealing with this one incident, but doing things in a way that get at the underlying problems."