Hamilton caught flat-footed Lack of a spill response policy is astonishing

The Hamilton Spectator  November 15/1999

Hamilton city council’s apparent inability to react quickly to pollution hazards is again bringing this municipality the kind of publicity we could happily do without. There is clear evidence that Hamilton needs to be more aggressive in eliminating pollution spills now that a citizens’ watchdog, the Environmental Bureau of Investigation, has filed private charges against the city. The incident, involving toxic runoff seeping into Red Hill Creek from a works yard and former landfill on Rennie Street, is a wake-up call. It’s essential that the city develop a plan to ensure timely cleanup of hazardous spills.

In our view, the courts are more likely to produce prompt action than a provincial investigation. Liberal MPP Dominic Agostino was predictably quick on the partisan draw in demanding an “independent” government probe. The chances of the Mike Harris goernment calling a probe are almost as likely as an inquiry into the Platimet fire. And the independence of an investigation would be suspect since there are questions about whether the province, not just the city, acted promptly. Science is inconclusive on the risks of limited human exposure to PCBs, but there isn’t any doubt about the importance of preventing the discharge of toxins such as PCBs and ammonia into streams.

The handling of the Rennie Street spill, as reported so far, suggests that Hamilton needs to get its act together. It took a year for the city to start cleaning up the site after the provincial environment ministry raised the red flag. The aldermen who represent east-end Ward 4 say they were never told of discussions between city and ministry staff about the issue. Here was a problem that warranted a priority, fast-track cleanup form city council. Instead, action was delayed for a year apparently due to a communications breakdown and the evident lack of a foolproof pollution response policy. This is astonishing, given Hamilton’s chronic air and water pollution problems.

Of equal concern, the remediation of old municipally-owned dumps, like Rennie Street, isn’t getting the necessary priority. Staff cut a $100,000 annual allotment for landfill cleanup before it reached aldermen on the budget steering committee. That’s wrong. By reinstating this money, council will take an important first step in assuring Hamiltonians that it’s serious about dealing more effectively with pollution hazards and developing a plan to prevent them.