Soggy spring sends sewage into harbour untreated
‘Bypass’ equals 547 million toilet flushes
Overwhelmed city pipes and treatment plants have dumped the equivalent of 1,300 Olympic-sized swimming pools of diluted sewage into the harbour this spring.
A record-breaking April storm followed by weeks of relentless rain repeatedly overloaded the Woodward treatment plant, prompting the city to “bypass” untreated or partially treated sewage into Red Hill Creek to prevent polluted water from backing up into people’s basements.
The plant recorded sewage bypasses of about 1,058 megalitres in April and more than 800 megalitres so far in May. Another 1,428 megalitres of mixed sewage and storm water overflowed from maxed-out underground tanks along the harbour and local creeks.
That amount of watery waste would fill about 1,314 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or require 547 million individual toilet flushes.
The numbers vary “dramatically” from year to year, based on the weather, said public works head Dan McKinnon. He noted an “extraordinarily dry year” in 2016 resulted in the lowest annual bypass total in five years — about 432 megalitres.
“This year, certainly, has been different and a challenge, for sure. I believe we were in bypass for a couple of days in a row, at one point.”
Overflowing sewage is a long-standing problem for older lake cities like Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto and Kingston, which depend on aging underground pipes to carry both storm water and sewage.
But it’s also an increasingly public problem for Hamilton, which is struggling to reopen polluted Bayfront Beach — closed by health officials last year due to high bacteria levels.
The city also aims to attract thousands of new residents to live on the harbour in a $500-million condo development proposed for Pier 8.
Hamilton “sits at the top of the list” of cities releasing the most untreated sewage into the water, said Krystyn Tully, vice-president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.
Tully gives the city credit for working to replace aging pipes and upgrade its treatment infrastructure. But she also argued Hamilton and other cities could do more right now to alert residents when sewage spills.
“The public desire to access the water is growing significantly,” Tully said. “But people are not going to feel comfortable using the water if they don’t have real information about whether it’s safe to do so.”
Tully pointed to new “real-time” alerts posted online by Kingston’s utility every time a sewer pipe spews untreated sewage into local waterways. She called it a “progressive approach” that so far is unique among Ontario’s Great Lakes cities.
Hamilton, like all cities, is required to report sewage spills and bypasses to the province. The city also emails the Royal Botanical Gardens whenever a sewage-trapping tank overflows near Cootes Paradise.
But so far, McKinnon said the city has not been asked by council or the province to post real-time sewage spill results online. (The province said in 2015 it planned to work with Toronto first to come up with an alert system that could be rolled out to other cities.)
Right now, McKinnon said the local health unit plays that public alert role, regularly testing bacteria levels at Hamilton beaches during the summer and posting results online. Testing started for the season Tuesday.
But not all Lake Ontario and harbour activities take place at a beach, noted Tully, pointing to boating, surfing and fishing. Beach testing is also typically a day behind, she noted, because of the time required to grow and evaluate a bacterial sample.
“Any time you’re swimming on a beach with a ‘green’ label, you’re really relying on yesterday’s data at best.”
While this year’s sewage-spilling numbers look grim, McKinnon said improvements to city infrastructure mean the overall environmental impact is lessened.
An upgraded treatment plant, for example, provides “preliminary” treatment — settling of solids and screening of large objects — for a majority of sewage that is released early into the environment during a storm.
Hundreds of millions of dollars will also be spent between now and 2021 to add a third layer of sophisticated filtration treatment for sewage under normal weather conditions.
“Basically, by improving the quality of effluent going into the environment on an everyday basis, we will be improving the ability of the environment to deal with the abnormal conditions like (sewage) bypassing,” McKinnon said.
The public desire to access the water is growing significantly.” KRYSTYN TULLY WATERKEEPER
Dan McKinnon: head of public works for the city
Record rain in April and more showers in May overwhelmed city water operations, leading to flooding and higher lake levels.