The public has a right to know about any water, land or air contamination that could affect their health and safety, says an Ontario city mayor who was kept in the dark about a massive sewage spill into a watershed that flows through her community.
Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward said she was surprised to read in a local newspaper last week that the nearby City of Hamilton knew late last year that 24 billion litres of wastewater spilled into Chedoke Creek between 2014 and 2018, but kept it a secret from the public.
"This is shocking, this is disturbing and I would say a significant environmental public health crisis," Meed Ward said in an interview.
The details of the sewage spill were first reported by the Hamilton Spectator based on confidential documents the newspaper said it had obtained.
In a statement last week, the City of Hamilton said it had reported the incident to the province's Ministry of Environment when it was first discovered in July 2018. However, it defended its decision to keep the report on the extent of the spill "confidential," saying it was "standard practice" to not comment on an issue that could result in litigation.
Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said Wednesday there are rules in place for municipalities to inform the public when such incidents occur.
"The Hamilton city council failed the people of Hamilton," Yurek said in the legislature.
The Ministry of Environment has launched an investigation into the spill, and the City of Hamilton said Wednesday it "does not comment on ongoing investigations."
Meed Ward said informing the public should outweigh any legal concerns.
"I think the issue is the public has a right to know and we as municipalities have that same right to know what's happening," Meed Ward said.
"Everyone deserves some answers and right now we've got a lot more questions than answers."
The Burlington mayor and her team have since scrambled to get a handle on the situation, said Meed Ward, who had scheduled a call with Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger on Wednesday.
"The question on all of our minds (is) why didn't this get detected much sooner? This went on for four years," Meed Ward said.
"We really need to understand how our fail-safes failed us and failed to keep us safe."
The City of Hamilton said last week it has monitored the water since it discovered the spill, and quality conditions improved significantly in the weeks after it stopped the discharge.
Sewage spills are a major problem across the country: more than one trillion litres of untreated wastewater have leaked or been dumped into waterways between 2013 and 2017, according to Environment Canada.
A common problem in many communities with older systems occurs after significant rainfall or snowmelt, when household waste and stormwater combine in the same pipes. The overflow is diverted from wastewater plants so as not to overwhelm the systems, but the fluids are vented into nearby waterways.
Yurek said the government is working on a "Made in Ontario" initiative that would include real-time reporting of sewage spills.
— With files from Mia Rabson and Allison Jones
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 27, 2019.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press