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'Too much secrecy': Horwath questions why Hamilton sewage spill was kept from public

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath speaks during a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. Ontario's New Democrats are gathering this weekend to discuss party priorities and hold a vote of confidence on their leader of ten years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

A report on a massive sewage spill into a Hamilton creek was “a confidential matter,” city officials said Thursday as they defended their decision to keep the details secret from the public.

Twenty-four billion litres of untreated wastewater flowed into Chedoke Creek between 2014 and 2018, the city said in a statement released Wednesday, shortly after a local newspaper reached out to officials for comment on the report.

The Hamilton Spectator reported it had obtained confidential documents that contained detailed information on the extent of the spill and suggested city councillors had tried to keep the extent of the spill secret.

The city said the veil of secrecy was standard practice.

“The report formed the basis of conversation in-camera because it is a confidential matter,” said Dan McKinnon, general manager of public works at the city, in an email.

“As well, it is the focus of an investigation of the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks and as such staff recommended that no public comments be made respecting it. This is standard practice relative to investigations that may result in litigation.”

The city said the sewage spill was caused by an open gate.

“Investigations have determined that the spill was a result of a bypass gate in the combined sewer overflow tank that should have been in a closed position, but was opened to approximately five per cent on Jan. 28, 2014,” the city said in its statement Wednesday.

When the spill was discovered, the gate was shut and cleaning began right away, the statement said.

Officials also pointed to two news releases they sent out in 2018 _ one on July 12 that said the city was investigating “the cause of highly contaminated water” in Chedoke Creek and the marsh Cootes Paradise and advised the public against swimming, and another on July 18 that said the source of the contamination was “an active discharge from one of the city’s combined sewer overflow tanks.”

Ontario NDP Leader Andrew Horwath, a Hamilton resident, questioned why both the city and the Ministry of the Environment didn’t tell the public about the spill.

“It’s not only a concern for me about the city and its decision to not be public about what happened here, but the minister of the environment, I believe, had a responsibility and an obligation to be public as well,” she told the Ontario legislature Thursday.

“There are too many questions, not enough answers. Too much secrecy and not enough disclosure.”

Energy Minister Greg Rickford, speaking on behalf of Environment Minister Jeff Yurek, did not answer questions about why the public was not notified.

He said the ministry was notified by the city on July 18. It issued several orders to the city, he said, to address the spill.

“The ministry will continue to work with the Hamilton public health unit, the City of Hamilton, the Hamilton Conservation Authority and other agencies in order to ensure that the appropriate corrective actions are being taken to mitigate the impacts of this sewage discharge,” Rickford said.

The city said it has monitored the water since it discovered the spill.

“The monitoring demonstrated substantial improvements in water quality conditions within weeks of stopping the discharge and odours also dissipated quite quickly,” the city said.

“Sample results show a dramatic decrease in E. coli levels for the parameters tested, and the results were similar to the levels before the discharge within weeks of stopping the discharge.”

The city said Wednesday it still has not determined why the gate was opened initially.

It said it is working with the Ministry of the Environment on further remediation of the area.