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City of Hamilton finds even more sewage has been flowing into Lake Ontario since 1996

The City of Hamilton has discovered even more sewage has been flowing directly into the Hamilton Harbour since 1996 — and it may not be the last leak the city finds.

The news was announced Monday, seven weeks after the city said it had discovered roughly 337 million litres of sewage had spilled into the harbourfront since 1996.

In 2019, it was discovered that 24 billion litres of sewage had been leaking into Chedoke Creek over four years. The city is still working on cleaning up that spill.

“We are likely to discover other similar discharges unfortunately,” Nick Winters, director of Hamilton Water, told reporters during a news conference Monday.

Winters said the 337-million-litre spill found in late November prompted the department to pilot a risk-based inspection program that focused on potential cross-connected pipe sections.

Winters said there have been 151 inspections since December and the process will help determine what resources are needed to potentially video inspect every metre of combined sewage pipe.

After the last leak was discovered in November, Ontario’s minister of the environment David Piccini said he wanted Hamilton to audit its entire sewage infrastructure. The city still hasn’t received an official order from the ministry to do so, but Winters said there have been preliminary discussions and that the city offered recommendations of its own.

Winters said this past weekend the team was conducting work as part of the inspection program and smelled an odour near Rutherford Avenue and Myrtle Avenue in Ward 3, resulting in further investigation.

Early Monday afternoon, the team discovered that a 100-year-old combined sewer pipe was connected into a newly constructed storm sewer in 1996 — the same year the last leak began.

Winters said he hopes the fact this may have also started in 1996 is just a coincidence.

As many as 11 residential properties have been discharging wastewater directly to the storm sewer and to Hamilton Harbour ever since, he said. Winters said it doesn’t affect the drinking water of the residents.

A van parked on a street near a maintenance hole.
Two City of Hamilton vans and a contractor’s truck were parked on Rutherford Avenue Monday evening, awaiting a large vacuum truck to start sucking sewage out of a utility hole near the corner of Rutherford and Myrtle venue. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

It’s unclear how much sewage has flowed into Lake Ontario from this pipe, how much the cleanup will cost and what impact it may have had on the environment and people living and working near the harbour.

Native fish species like northern pike, stocked walleye, largemouth bass, sunfish and yellow perch, as well as non-native species like common carp, goldfish and rudd can be found in the harbour.

“This combined sewer outfall in particular is quite active,” Winters said.

“It doesn’t take a very large rainstorm for some sanitary combined sewage to make its way out of that outfall.”

Mayor says city trying to be proactive and honest

In his update around 4 p.m., Winters said a vacuum truck was on site to prevent the flow of any more wastewater. The truck wasn’t there as of roughly 6 p.m. ET but a few city vehicles and a contractor’s truck were parked waiting for the vacuum truck to arrive. Residents in the area said they saw a truck earlier in the day.

Winters said he contacted the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) Spills Action Centre and the city’s spill reporting line early Monday afternoon.

Mayor Andrea Horwath, who was also at the news conference, told reporters the city has a “very old” combined sewer system, and emphasized it is taking a proactive, transparent approach.

“Nobody wants this news … but it’s our responsibility and obligation to let Hamiltonians know when something is happening,” she said, adding the point of the inspection program is to find problems as soon as possible.

“One of the things we might be learning from this process is exactly how important it is to not let these kinds of things end with a shrug of the shoulders,” she said.

Horwath said she has spoken to Piccini and reached out to leaders of local Indigenous communities including Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and Six Nations of the Grand River.

She also encourages residents to report to the city if they find a leak or smell a septic odour.

Winters said as far as he knows, there haven’t been any complaints from residents made to the city about an odour in the area.

Residents unsurprised about discovery

Scott Holmes told CBC Hamilton he moved into his home on Rutherford Avenue in September.

He said his home has smelled like sewage for months, but he never complained to the city.

Instead, he went to the online forum Reddit, where people on the Hamilton page said a sewage smell in Hamilton is normal.

“I have a feeling it’s probably all of Hamilton,” he said.

A maintenance hole.
The city says wastewater from 11 homes near Rutherford Avenue and Myrtle Avenue has been flowing directly into Hamilton Harbour since 1996. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Casey Bruton said he’s lived on Rutherford Avenue for 10 years and said he has never smelled sewage.

A city worker informed him there would be a vacuum truck on the street because of a connection issue with the pipes.

When he learned about the sewage leak from CBC, Bruton said he wasn’t surprised.

“It seems to be a monthly thing in this city right now … Hamilton has gained a reputation for this kind of thing,” he said, while also praising the city’s transparency around the more recent incidents.

“Council seems to be going in a positive direction … we’ll wait and see now I guess.”

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