Hamilton·Updated

Council votes to release some, but not all, information about Chedoke Creek leak

Council clashed over the massive sewage leak in Chedoke Creek Wednesday, with members arguing about what exactly they should be apologizing for and whether they should go behind closed doors to get legal advice about what confidential information to release.

'There's a lot of crap around here. Not all of it in Chedoke Creek,' said Coun. Danko

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 city council will formally apologize for not telling residents about the magnitude of the massive sewage spill in Chedoke Creek and has voted to release some — but not all information about it.

The decision came around 3:20 a.m., about four hours after councillors went behind closed doors to discuss a motion from Ward 1 Coun. Maureen Wilson that called on the city to make that apology, and asked that all confidential reports related to the leak be made public.

After the marathon meeting, Wilson said the only information being held back was material protected by solicitor client privilege, in order to not impede the impartiality of an ongoing investigation by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MEPC).

An explanation of the legal barriers in place and links to the reports that are being shared should be available by mid-morning, according to staff.

'The best I was going to get'

The motion provides the titles of 10 separate documents that will be released, including a remediation report, an inspection of the city's combined sewage overflow facilities and reports on orders issued by the ministry.

"This was the best I was going to get with a full apology and with all the appendices we could provide. and to get council to commit to begin to right our relationship with the Indigenous people," said Wilson.

Among the information that will not be released are two staff reports about the spill that council received during their meeting Wednesday, as well as the two reports obtained by the Hamilton Spectator that show councillors knew details of the leak, but decided not to tell the public.

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. 1:06

Shortly before the newspaper published a story about those details, the city issued a media release explaining a bypass gate at one of the city's combined sewage overflow tanks had been left open without notification since Jan. 2014, allowing an estimated 24 billion litres of storm runoff and untreated sewage leaked into the creek before it was discovered, and stopped, in July 2018.

A second gate malfunction on the same tank occurred over last six months of that period and likely "amplified" the amount that was allowed to flow into the creek, say staff.

Wilson said what based on what she's hearing from residents, Hamiltonians wanted to know what happened, who knew what about the spill when, what risks they face and what studies have been done to look into contamination of the creek and other area waters.

"All of that material is going to be released to the public now," she said.

The councillor's motion also dictates the following:

  • That all documents being shared be sent to Burlington, Environment Hamilton and the Royal Botanical Gardens —all of which said they weren't aware of the leak despite having some stake in the waterways that were damaged. That the information will also be handed over to local conservation authorities.
  • Staff should put together a summary of all water samples taken by the city between 2014 and the present, which will be made public.
  • That the city reconcile with Indigenous Water Walkers about their concerns around waste found in the harbour and Cootes Paradise.
  • That public health immediately report back on any health-related incidents connected to the contaminated water and that hospital and clinic data going back to Jan. 2014 be examined for unusual illnesses that could also be linked to the leak.

City staff are also being directed to report back on its water collection model. A copy of the motion will also be sent to the conservation authority and MECP to make all of their water samples related to Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise from Jan. 2014 til now public.

Ward 1 Coun. Maureen Wilson looks on during pointed debate about the Chedoke Creek leak during Wednesday's council meeting. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Finally, the motion calls for public works and communications staff to prepare a chronology of when the Mayor and members of council were told about the situation in the creek and how it was reported to them.

'A lot of crap' as councillors clash

The vote followed a contentious meeting that saw councillors clash over what exactly they should be apologizing for and whether they should go behind closed doors to get legal advice about what confidential information to release.

"There's a lot of crap around here. Not all of it in Chedoke Creek." said Coun. John-Paul Danko, making it clear he did not want to go in camera.

While introducing her motion, Wilson said it's her understanding the previous council received four briefings on the leak before the most-recent election and that information, along with the reports supplied to the current council, should be shared with the public to rebuild trust.

The leak was discovered in July 2018. Staff closed the gate and began a cleanup effort to remove waste from the water. (City of Hamilton)

The councillor added she had discussed the leak with Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward and said Ward mentioned a council colleague was blaming her for passing along confidential reports to the Spectator.

"That is terrible you would say that," said Coun. Lloyd Ferguson protesting that he never identified her as the whistleblower, even though Wilson did not mention the name of any specific councillor.

Wilson said her integrity had been attacked and insisted she did not leak the reports.

"I will not dignify that accusation with a response," she added.

Risk of $6M fine 'scared' council

Coun. Brad Clark said he was worried some members of council were focusing on the wrong things.

"I'm concerned about finger pointing," he said, adding it's his belief council shouldn't waste time trying to find out who leaked the reports.

"Clean up the creek, restore the creek," said Clark. "Those should be the issues we're focused on."

Clark recalled hearing in-camera that the maximum fine from the province, per incident was $6 million.

Without knowing what the ministry would make of the spill, Clark said that figure sent a "chill" through council.

"I saw the faces on my colleagues and that number scared them," he said.

Doctor says council didn't put public at risk

Ferguson said he has no trouble apologizing for the fact the spill happened, but he wasn't comfortable saying he was sorry for the way council handled the issue.

"I feel sick about it also," the councillor explained. "I just have trouble apologizing that we concealed the information."

Members of council have said they were following legal advice and trying to protect taxpayers by not releasing details of the spill until after the MECP investigation was complete.

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

Ferguson asked several questions of Dr. Bart Harvey, associate medical officer of health for the city, including if by keeping reports from the public council put residents at risk.

"No councillor you didn't," said Harvey, adding warning signs about high bacteria levels in the creek were already in place and a review to see if there was any rise in illnesses associated with the contaminated water after the leak revealed no issues.

Bits of confidential discussions come to light

Before that happened, scraps of what was discussed past closed sessions started to come out as debate around the council table continued.

Several councillors took the opportunity to discuss their stance on whether or not the magnitude of the spill should be made public during past, confidential meeting.

Coun. Sam Merulla claimed he was the first to argue for transparency when council first became aware of the details of the leak.

But, he said, he didn't see the decision as an attempt to hold back information.

"Cover ups are designed to be permanent" he said, describing what happened as a "temporary delay" of releasing information until the investigation was complete.

At one point, Coun. Terry Whitehead said he also had no problem apologizing for the "shameful leak" but that he took exception to any suggestion the city made a "bad faith" decision.

"Not one councillor did not want the information released," he said, adding it was all a matter of "timing."

"That's ridiculous," said Wilson. "That's not true."

The Ward 1 councillor later said she intentionally did not touch on any in-camera material in her remarks, but, based on what some of her colleagues had revealed, she had decided to speak out about what she said behind closed doors.

"I sat there. I was in tears," she said, before being cautioned by the city's lawyer about confidentiality. "I demanded and asked and begged my council colleagues to release this information publicly."