Ontario issues order for Hamilton to improve sewage monitoring after spills into Lake Ontario

Ontario's Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks has issued the City of Hamilton a provincial officer's order to improve the way it inspects its sewage system, after the recent discovery of two massive spills.

Province says Hamilton 'does not have adequate programs' to find sewage spills and more spills may be present

A sign that tells people not to swim in the water.
The province's ministry of environment has issued the city with an order after two recently discovered sewage spills. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Ontario's Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) has issued the City of Hamilton a provincial officer's order to improve the way it inspects its sewage system, after the recent discovery of two massive spills.

The two spills saw an estimated combined total of 396 million litres of wastewater flow into Lake Ontario since 1996.

The order, issued on Jan. 18, isn't the audit of the entire sewage system that the province's environment minister said in late November he asked for — but the order does criticize the city's current procedures and offers a timeline for the city to review and improve how it monitors its sewage system.

"It is my opinion that the City of Hamilton does not have adequate programs to inspect, monitor and identify unauthorized connections causing spills from the City of Hamilton's sewage works infrastructure," reads the order.

"With the absence of adequate programs, it is in my opinion that additional spills, similar to this event could be currently occurring."

Nick Winters, head of Hamilton Water, told CBC Hamilton he feels "relief" that there isn't an order to do a system-wide audit but "hurts a little bit" to hear the criticism.

"Based on my experience ... our programs either meet or exceed, in some areas, what you would expect to see across the municipal landscape for some of these programs," Winters said.

"I don't think we're falling behind personally, but there's always room for improvement."

Nick Winters is the director of Hamilton Water. (Aicha Smith-Belghaba/CBC)

Winters emphasized the issue isn't only a "Hamilton problem."

"It is something that, unfortunately, is industry-wide. The older your sewer system, whether in Ontario or the United States ... the more of these types of issues are going to exist," he said.

Last week, the city said roughly 59 million litres of sewage had flowed from 11 homes near Rutherford Avenue and Myrtle Avenue straight into Lake Ontario. In November, the city discovered a leak near Wentworth Street North and Burlington Street East that had sent 337 million litres of sewage into the harbour.

On top of dealing with the two recent spills, the city has yet to fulfil the ministry's order to clean up the massive 24-billion-litre sewage spill in Chedoke Creek, a leak that took place over four years.

There have also been past discharges where used condoms, tampon applicators and other sewage-related trash clogged up the Red Hill Creek near the Windermere Basin. The city and province said in 2020 they were investigating that discharge but its unclear what the findings were. 

Winters said the current order could help deal with issues like the discharges near the Red Hill, since it'll prompt the team to take a closer look at everything.

Province sets deadlines for next steps

The order states by Feb. 26, the city must retain a qualified contractor.

By Mar. 17, the city must develop a sampling program within the sewage system that discharges into the natural environment and offer a timeline to implement the program.

The city must also set trigger conditions that would lead staff to investigate spills.

By May 12, the city must identify recommendations for improving sewage inspection programs.

At a minimum, the city has to determine how feasible it would be to do detailed, in-pipe inspections of Hamilton's sewer system, as well as risk-based inspections.

The city also has to review additional physical and analytical inspection programs to identify spills and must have procedures to update the city's mapping of the system when staff find discrepancies.

A vacuum truck has a tube going straight into a maintenance hole in the road.
A vacuum truck was stationed at the corner of Rutherford Avenue and Myrtle Avenue to stop sewage from flowing straight into Lake Ontario. Roughly 59 million more litres of wastewater flowed into the harbourfront, according to the city. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

By June 30, the city must document its programs and processes for identifying spills, which would include the improvements made in previous months.

Winters said some of the timelines are tight, but nothing in the order is "out of left field."

He said the city's response to the order, which would include what it feels is the best way to inspect the sewage system, will also include how much doing so will cost.

Winters said whatever the city decides to do, it will take "a long time" to do.

Hamilton Water to present at public works committee meeting

City spokesperson Emily Trotta said Hamilton Water staff have been meeting with MECP staff and are hoping to ensure the "feasibility" of its next steps.

She said Hamilton Water staff are aiming to present a report to the city's public works committee on Feb. 13 that includes an overview of the order, its implications and steps to address the requirements.

It will also include more details about the inspection program that caught the latest sewage spill near Rutherford Avenue and Myrtle Avenue.

"This includes 292 maintenance hole inspections as part of the City's initial pilot, of which over 150 inspections have been completed to date," she said.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.