City charged over PCBs

The Hamilton Spectator  November 11/1999
by Sharon Oosthoek

Burke Austin points to possible PCB runoffs along the Red Hill Creek near Brampton Street.

An environmental watchdog has accused Hamilton of permitting toxic runoff from the city’s Rennie Street works yard to seep into the Red Hill Creek.Hamilton’s 1999 environmentalist of the year Lynda Lukasik, acting with the volunteer Environmental Bureau of Investigation, filed private charges this week against the city under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act and the federal Fisheries Act.

Members claim Hamilton has known for at least 18 months that PCBs and toxic levels of ammonia are seeping into the creek.

And environmentalists say that levels of the poisons are so high that test fish dipped in the leachate died within minutes.

Correspondence from former city public works commissioner Doug Lobo in August 1998 acknowledges the provincial environment ministry’s concerns about polychlorinated-biphenyl contamination from the Rennie Street works yard. He states Hamilton plans to confirm provincial test results and take “the necessary remedial measures” to stop toxic seepage into the creek.

The Environmental Bureau of Investigation held a news conference yesterday at the Brampton Street footbridge over the Red Hill Creek to announce the charges. The Sierra Legal Defence Fund will represent environmentalists in the prosecution of the complaint.

Hamilton aldermen — in particular the politicians who represent east-end Ward 4 –were caught off guard by the allegations and the charges. They were also unaware of the concerns expressed by the environment ministry about PCB contamination from the works yard.

Alderman Dave Wilson represents the area. Chad Collins heads the transport and environment committee. They say that out of all city aldermen, they at least should have been made aware of problems at the yard.

“It’s safe to say neither of us are happy,” Wilson said.

“Clearly no discharge is acceptable. I know there are problems with the Brampton Street landfill (a closed dump just downstream from the works yard) but I wasn’t aware of any problems from Rennie Street.”

About 30 area residents attended the news conference.

The EBI, made up mostly of volunteers, has successfully prosecuted the City of Kingston over Fisheries Act violations. It was a two-year-long process but the city was eventually fined $150,000.

The maximum fine for charges against the City of Hamilton is more than $2 million.

EBI investigator Mark Mattson said he gathered samples from leachate seeping into the Red Hill Creek over the course of six days this summer.

Mattson told residents he was shocked by the levels of PCBs and ammonia found in the samples — PCBs were “thousands of times” over provincial water quality objectives and ammonia in concentrations lethal to fish.

That did not surprise some residents, who say they’ve called the city several times about their worries over leachate from the works yard. The yard was built next to a small landfill that was closed in the 1960s, before authorities began keeping records.

Area activist Burke Austin is especially worried about the implications.

“For years, I worked to have the trail and bridge installed across the creek so that citizens could have access to it, and now I am so worried because I know that many children are playing in this polluted area and there are no signs to warn them,” Austin said.

Lukasik says she would like to see the city post warnings in the area to keep people away until it can be cleaned up.

In the meantime, residents say they’re looking for answers as to why the city hasn’t acted on their concerns.

Both Wilson and Collins say they have received calls about the Brampton Street landfill, but not about Rennie Street. The aldermen expressed frustration yesterday they’d not been made aware of discussions between city and ministry staff over the landfill.

After discussions with city staff yesterday, Wilson said city workers had isolated a leachate source in May. They spent $10,000 to dig out PCB-contaminated soil at the site, cap the source and ship the soil to Quebec, where it was treated.

City workers have since found other sources of leachate. Ministry of Environment staff are also investigating water quality around the site.