The City of Hamilton says it has just discovered sewage has been leaking into the Hamilton Harbour for 26 years because of a hole in a combined sewage pipe in the industrial sector.
It's unclear how much sewage has spilled into the harbour.
But Nick Winters, director of Hamilton Water, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon "it's going to be a big number," adding the city will publicly release the number as soon as they have it.
Carlyle Khan, general manager of public works, said Hamilton Water staff noticed something odd on security camera footage. Winters said that led to the discovery of the hole late Tuesday morning at the northeast corner of Wentworth Street North and Burlington Street East.
A preliminary investigation from staff notes they believe a consultant put the hole into the combined sewage pipe in 1996, Winters said.
"It appears the consultant involved in that work was under the impression all the sewers in that area were storm sewers and they designed a direct connection to a box culvert that leads out to Hamilton Harbour," he said.
"The situation we're describing to you today is something that shouldn't have happened."
What is impacted by the sewage spill?
City staff said the drinking water of Hamilton residents has not been affected by the newly discovered leak, but the spill will have impacted the environment of the harbour.
The outflow ends at a Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority Pier, Winters said.
Some 50 homes are tied into this pipe, but he said the water used by those homes has been going into the lake.
Winters said staff are looking at the amount of water each home uses to find out how much sewage has ended up in the harbour.
He also said the leak should be "significantly less" sewage than the 24 billion litres of sewage that leaked into Chedoke Creek for four years — a leak which the city is still working on cleaning up.
How did the leak go unnoticed for 26 years?
The storm sewer outfall is always under water, so a sewage spill wouldn't be easy to detect and or sample water from, Winters said.
He said the storm sewer is 2½ metres wide by 2½ metres deep.
Sampling from within the sewers itself also isn't something that generally happens, Winters added, but the city launched its surface water quality program last year.
He said the Hamilton Water team was preparing to do other work, and while reviewing past records, they came across a consultant's video from 2013 that showed unusual activity.
That led them to investigate and find out about the 26-year-old leak.
What is the city doing about it?
Winters said staff contacted the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) Spills Action Centre at 12:20 p.m. ET Tuesday and reported it to the city's spill reporting line.
There's also a vacuum truck at the site as a short-term way to stop the flow of sewage into the environment, according to Winters.
The city said residents in the area can expect to see many trucks and other vehicles nearby as staff work to fix the problem.
Winters said it's unclear how many resources it will take to fix the issue.
Mayor Andrea Horwath told reporters Tuesday she asked the auditor to complete a review and release a public report about what may have happened.
MECP spokesperson Gary Wheeler told CBC Hamilton the ministry dispatched an environmental officer to the site to evaluate the situation, gather additional information and ensure steps are being taken to stop the flow of sewage into the harbour.
"The ministry will be assessing the need to collect samples," he said, adding that the province will stay on top of the issue as it evolves.
Mayor, councillors concerned about spill
Horwath said her biggest concern is the spill's impact on the environment.
"Like all of you, I'm worried," she said.
She also said Tuesday's response to the leak is evidence the new city council is committed to being transparent.
"It's important for Hamiltonians to get information as quickly as possible," she said, adding she learned of the situation between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. She spoke to media on the matter shortly after 5 p.m.
Ward 2 Coun. Cameron Kroetsch tweeted he's "deeply concerned about this and learned about it by email at 4:38 p.m."
"I'm glad this is being made public immediately. Water is life."
Ward 13 Coun. Alex Wilson tweeted the city will get to vote on the water, wastewater and stormwater budget soon — and it's a chance to make a change.
"We have an opportunity to fund the maintenance, repairs and remediation work needed to protect our waterways," they wrote.
"I'll be moving motions to that effect in the coming weeks."