Hamilton Water discovers hole that leaked sewage into harbour for 26 years

As much as 337 million litres of sewage made its way into Hamilton Harbour since 1996, as a result of a leaking hole in a combined sewer pipe. The leak was recently discovered during a separate maintenance review of old closed circuit video files. The video was made by a contractor in 2013 as part of a broader inspection program and filed in a city archive. Photo credit: City of Hamilton

Ontario’s Environment Minister says he’s requiring Hamilton to audit its entire sewage infrastructure and come up with a remediation plan, following the recent discovery of yet another sewage leak in the city that went undetected for decades.

Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini told reporters at Queen’s Park that the leak was “absolutely unacceptable,” and added that he was angry “for the people who are yet again hearing about how their city and the lack of oversight has failed to protect their waters.”

Nick Winters, director of Hamilton Water, told AM900 CHML’s Good Morning Hamilton that the pipes attached to the homes were “connected wrong” and joined with the storm sewer pipe, then connected into a sanitary pipe.

In a separate press conference, Winters explained that contractors who attached the pipes in 1996 may have been working from incorrect plans provided by the city.

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The leaking hole in the combined sewer pipe was discovered during a separate maintenance review of old closed circuit video files. The footage was made by a contractor in 2013 as part of a broader inspection program and filed in a city archive. The hole, at Burlington Street East and Wentworth Street North, was fixed immediately.

Repair work and realignment of the sewer line was completed on November 23, and sewage is now flowing into the correct pipe, said the city in a press release.

However, city staff estimate that as much as 337 million litres of sewage was discharged into Hamilton Harbour as a result of this leak. This estimate was generated by examining water meter data of the properties connected to the combined sewer pipe, and staff said this method was “the most accurate representation of the discharge over the time period.”

Hamilton’s new mayor, and former Ontario NDP leader, Andrea Horwath said she intends to discuss with the city auditor how a spill of this nature could go on for more than 20 years without being detected.

“In line with my commitment to transparency, I asked that this information be made public immediately,” Mayor Horwath announced in a statement on November 22. “I am concerned about the environmental impacts of this spill, and while we are not yet aware of the total volume of sewage released, I have been informed that it was substantial. I was assured that the nature of the spill makes the risk to human health very low.”

The city would have to investigate 2,100 kilometres of separated sanitary sewer system to confirm if leaks are happening elsewhere.

The latest leak brings more scrutiny to the city following the controversy of the Chedoke Creek problem in which a bypass gate was left open and leaked approximately 24 billion litres of combined sewage into the creek over four years.

In recent years, Hamilton has been working to investigate incidents where builders have incorrectly linked sewage outputs to the storm sewer system, a not uncommon problem for many municipalities across Canada. Since 2010, the city has identified and repaired some 376 homes with complete cross connections, resulting in diverting 84.6 million litres of sewage from natural watercourses to wastewater treatment facilities.

In a new public works report from November, Hamilton officials are eyeing upgrades, following eligibility for some $1.8 million to build, upgrade and rehabilitate wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. The city is eligible for up to $885,936 from the Improving Monitoring and Public Reporting of Sewage Overflows and Bypasses Program, as well as funding through the Improving Wastewater and Stormwater Discharges in Lake Ontario Funding Program.

As part of the funding the city is expected to replace and add monitors for  levels and direction at critical overflow locations.

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