The City of Hamilton will pay nearly $3 million in fines and damages for allowing 24 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater to spill into Chedoke Creek.
The city said in a press release Thursday afternoon that it has pleaded guilty in the Ontario Court of Justice in connection with charges brought by Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) in 2020.
The city said it has reached a settlement with the Crown, which will include a $2.1 million fine, a payment of $364,500 in damages to the Royal Botanic Gardens and a $525,000 victim fine surcharge.
The grand total is $2,985,500. Nick Winters, director of Hamilton Water, said the fine is due in four months and will be paid from reserve funds.
MECP spokesman Gary Wheeler said in an email that it is the “largest fine for a single offense under the Ontario Water Resources Act.”
A valve in the city’s combined sewer overflow system was left open between 2014 and 2018, causing a layer of biohazardous sediment to settle at the bottom of Chedoke Creek. Chedoke Creek flows into Cootes Paradise and into Hamilton Harbour.
Court documents show why the valve was left open
An agreed statement of fact, provided to CBC Hamilton by the city, Chedoke Creek status had poor quality water prior to 2018, but that year, the water was getting worse.
Sampling of the creek that spring showed E.coli levels that were 24,500 times higher than the reference level cities use to declare water unsafe for swimming.
The agreed statement of facts says that in early July, someone complained to the province about sewage being discharged into the creek.
Days after the complaint, Hamilton Public Health Services took its own sample and declared the water a health hazard.
The city hired a consultant to inspect, which led them to discover that the tributary overflow gate was left open at five percent, when it should have been fully closed.
LOOK: The combined sewage overflow tank behind the sewage spill
City records show it has been open since January 28, 2014, according to the agreed upon statement of facts.
There is no logbook entry for that date that explains how it happened.
But Winters told reporters that a 2014 guidance document had “incorrect information” and claimed the system was supposed to be left open at five percent.
“We were unable to determine why the error was made in that document,” he said.
The agreed statement of facts says that the document prevented the problem from being detected earlier.
A different gate was also later found in the same system that should have been open and remained closed, allowing even more sewage and rainwater to flow into the creek.
“It is clear that the high levels of E. Coli and the deterioration of the natural environment between 2014 and 2018 were largely due to this combined wastewater discharge,” the agreed statement of facts read.
City Council apologizes for sewage spill
Carlyle Khan, general manager of the public works department, told reporters the city accepts “full responsibility” for the sewage spill.
“We apologize to the community, our partners and council members for the way the situation was handled and for the resulting environmental impact,” he said.
Winters also addressed local indigenous communities, saying she understands “there are a lot of people who feel disrespected,” but said the city is “on the right track.”
City contractors resumed dredging of biohazardous sediment at the bottom of the creek on Thursday after the city said environmental monitoring agreements had been reached with local First Nations groups.
The city has said it will finish the dredging by the end of October.
Wheeler, a spokesman for the MECP, said the ministry is “pleased that Hamilton has finally started dredging.”
There have also been other initiatives, including a risk-based proactive inspection program, driven by the discovery of other sewage spills late last year and early this year.
Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath said in a statement that the city “failed” and that the guilty plea is “encouraging.”
“As I said before, there was too much secrecy in this case and not enough disclosure,” he said.
“Mistakes will happen, but we owe it to the people of Hamilton to own up to those mistakes and demonstrate a real change in our approach going forward.”