Soggy spring sends sewage into har­bour un­treated

‘By­pass’ equals 547 mil­lion toi­let flushes

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - MATTHEW VAN DONGEN

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.

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