Sewer spill saga an ugly stain on city
Fat, concrete storm sewer pipes snake beneath Kingston’s streets and sidewalks, gobbling runoff from roofs, roads and parking lots before excreting what they consume into lakes and rivers.
Near the west bank of the Cataraqui River, just south of the manicured seventh green of the Belle Park golf course, one of the biggest of these subterranean beasts breaches the surface.
For a few dozen metres, its rounded, grey back protrudes above the soil as the 1.5-metre-wide pipe runs toward the river’s edge.
“It’s a big outfall and it’s one of the largest, if not the largest, catchment area, in the city,” says Paul MacLatchy, manager of the city’s environment department.
Walk into the pipe
With a slight stoop, an adult can walk into the opening on the river bank.
The pipe carries runoff from dozens of city blocks bounded by Drayton Avenue, York Street and Kirkpatrick Street. For most of this summer, this system emptied its bowels into the river.
Excrement, urine, tampons, toilet paper, garbage and anything else flushed down the toilets and drains of hundreds of city homes and businesses, poured into the river for up to 10 weeks, according to the city’s estimate.
As much as 22 million litres of foul substances may have been dumped in the river.
The pollution was accompanied by an overpowering stench.
Over a period of roughly three weeks, during which the Ministry of Environment and city knew of the sewage spill, nothing was done to contain or clean it, although a “plan of action” was developed by the city.
Within two days of a story appearing in The Whig-Standardthat revealed the pollution, the source of the problem was found and the flow was stopped.
The city’s plan called for hiring a private contractor, at a cost of $25,000, to investigate the problem and control it, apparently because the city lacks the necessary resources.
“Neither the City of Kingston nor Utilities Kingston currently has the staff required to undertake this program so we plan to contract a qualified firm as soon as possible to begin work on this project,” MacLatchy wrote in a two-page memo to the ministry, dated Aug. 31.
The city and ministry say they acted responsibly in responding to the Kingscourt spill.
The city says it did not learn of the pollution until Aug. 29 and did not know about the existence of an underground overflow structure that later proved to be a key to the spill.
“I find that authorities love to pretend they don’t know. That means that they’re not guilty of negligence,” said George Sorger, a biologist at McMaster University in Hamilton and a celebrated environmental activist.
Sorger reviewed the findings of a lab test on a sample taken from the Kingscourt spill.
“Would you like to jump into the toilet and take a bath there?” asks Sorger, who has earned environmental awards for his work in the Hamilton region, where he dedicates spare time to training high school students to sample sewer outlets, looking for signs of dangerous pollution.
The Kingscourt spill was teeming with fecal matter that can harbour a wide range of diseases, he said.
“Wherever you have fecal matter, you have a potential hazard,” says Sorger. “The hazard comes from people just touching the water and then touching their face or any other part of their body and ingesting that or getting it in touch with their blood or getting it in touch with a pore where a germ has access to start an infection.”
The Cataraqui River drains into Lake Ontario, source of Kingston’s drinking water.
The city says it learned of the leak Aug. 29 as a result of a testing program in which the Ministry of Environment is seeking the sources of PCBs entering the lake.
The five-phase “plan of action” submitted two days later was based, it turns out, on flawed thinking about the problem.
“The Ministry of the Environment has noted that this sanitary sewage contamination is present during dry weather periods, which indicates that the contamination is not due to overflow from the sanitary system to the storm,” MacLatchy wrote, in a report to city politicians dated Sept. 4.
Sixteen days later, the city discovered that the problem was precisely what MacLatchy had said it wasn’t: Overflow from sanitary sewers was spilling into storm pipes.
The city isn’t talking about this, or any other puzzling aspect of the case, now that Ontario’s green police, the Ministry of Environment’s investigations and enforcement branch, is investigating.
“We’re not prepared to discuss aspects of the situation that are going to be subject of a legal investigation,” MacLatchy said in an interview Sept. 24.
The ministry probe could lead to charges.
“We’re satisfied that we stopped the discharge in a timely fashion,” MacLatchy said.
Critics suggest that while the Kingscourt spill wasn’t large in volume or impact, it is a clear example of the sad state of environmental vigilance in Ontario.
“I think this is a clear case of a lack of due diligence,” says Janet Fletcher, a Kingston activist whose persistence led to convictions against Kingston for allowing pollution to leak from an old garbage dump.
“I think it was pretty incompetent of the city to allow this to go on.”
Fletcher says a key problem is the lax response of the frontline agency responsible for monitoring the systems and operations of governments and private industry – the Ministry of Environment’s abatement department.
“These guys, as far as I’m concerned, are the polluter’s best friend,” she says. “I think abatement has fallen down on the job and the ministry obviously has no due diligence.”
On Sept. 19, the day that the Kingscourt spill was revealed publicly, Michael Ladouceur, president of the union local representing Environment Ministry workers in Kingston, gave a public presentation, warning that staff cuts within the ministry have dire implications.
“Workload considerations are so tight at present that staff routinely receive priority requests with impossible turnaround times,” Ladouceur said, in a presentation to the provincial inquiry studying the Walkerton water tragedy. “It is common to drop everything to meet a delivery requirement.
“This is a dangerous process.”
Ladouceur said staff are required to provide hasty comment and consideration on important issues.
“At the very least, it destroys morale, creates stress and, at its worst, sets the stage for serious errors or omissions.”
He pointed to the closing of all ministry testing labs, including the regional laboratory in Kingston.
“The loss of the laboratory was a blow to technical support and the ministry in many ways,” Ladouceur testified.
In the case of the Kingscourt sewer spill, the ministry has still not released the results of any lab tests on samples it collected. The city did not take any samples to test for bacterial contamination.
The Environmental Bureau of Investigation, a citizen-led watchdog group, sampled the spill and obtained results within 48 hours, showing that the discharge was contaminated with bacteria at 1,500 times the level at which a public beach would be closed because of a health hazard.
Fletcher says political power has shifted within the Ministry of Environment under the Harris government, so that the abatement department can block the ministry’s investigations department from launching a probe.
“What I think they’re doing is helping polluters get around the law,” she charges.
Bob Michea, an abatement officer in Kingston who is responsible for monitoring the city’s activities, has in the past defended the municipality’s handling of sewer spills, pointing out that the city has spent millions of dollars to upgrade the aging network of pipes and pumps.
Michea’s boss, John Allen, the acting area supervisor of abatement, recently praised Kingston’s efforts in an article headlined “Kingston’s Sewage Success Story.”
The eight-paragraph story appeared recently in a government publication, the Lake Ontario Lakewide Management Plan Update, which documents efforts to identify and control pollution. The document is distributed to government agencies and environmental groups.
“It really holds Kingston up as a shining example on the lake,” says Mark Mattson, a lawyer and executive director of the Environmental Bureau of Investigation.
Allen’s article says the city has invested $12 million since 1992 to control sewage pollution that once forced repeated closings of local beaches.
“Thanks to these proactive steps taken by the City of Kingston, bacterial levels have been lowered, beaches have not been closed in over three years, and most importantly, the amount of pollution entering Lake Ontario has been lessened,” Allen wrote.
In an interview, Allen acknowledged that he misrepresented information about how the city has done this, particularly with his explanation that “pumps at the sewage treatment plant didn’t have a large enough capacity to handle the additional water during heavy storms.”
“That may have been a misquote,” Allen said, when quizzed about the statement by The Whig-Standard.
The city’s ongoing problems with sewage spills, he agreed, are not related to a lack of capacity at the sewage treatment plant.
He could not explain how the mistake ended up in print, in a glossy government publication.
“It still doesn’t take away from the focus that the work that the city has done to date has resulted in the stoppage of beach closures,” he said. The ministry’s investigations and enforcement department will not discuss its probe of the Kingscourt spill.
Chronology of a sewer spill
– Aug. 29: The Ministry of Environment first learns that raw sewage is pouring out of a big storm sewer pipe – the Kingscourt outfall – into the Cataraqui River at the south edge of Belle Park; the city is ordered to develop a plan to investigate and stop the spill
– Aug. 31: city sends to the ministry a five-point “plan of action to locate and eliminate these sanitary sources”
– Sept. 4: Paul MacLatchy, manager of the city’s environment division, prepares for politicians a three-page report on the problem; the report asks for $25,000 to hire consultants to track the problem down
– Samples of material are taken inside the storm sewer pipe by the Ministry of Environment and sent for laboratory testing;
– Sept. 11: councillors agree to MacLatchy’s request for $25,000
– Sept. 17: senior Environment bureaucrat John Allen signs off on an occurrence report passed to the ministry’s investigations and enforcement branch
– Sept. 18: The Whig-Standardlearns of the Kingscourt pollution and visits the site;
– Environmentalist Doug Fletcher photographs the scene and reports a pollution emergency to the Environment Ministry’s spills action centre in Toronto
– Sept. 19: The Whig-Standardpublishes a front-page story about the pollution, including graphic photos
– Senior Environment Ministry official John Allen visits the scene, by coincidence, he says, on the same day the newspaper story appears. Allen calls the city to suggest, based on the colour of the discharge, that the problem may stem from an illegal sewer connection at an industrial operation
– The watchdog group, Environmental Bureau of Investigation, takes samples of the spill for lab testing
– Sept. 20: City workers conduct a dye test at a property connected to the Kingscourt sewer network; the crew learns, the city says, that the property is properly connected but discovers a blockage in a sanitary sewer line and an unknown underground overflow structure; the blockage is sending untreated sewage into the overflow structure, which is diverting the waste into the storm sewer line; the pollution stops when the blockage is cleared
– Sept. 21: The city issues a news release announcing that it stopped the pollution “as a result of an anonymous tip received on Thursday, September 20.”
– The Environmental Bureau of Investigation reports lab tests on its sample show “astronomical” levels of bacterial contamination
– Sept. 24: The Ministry of Environment’s investigations and enforcement branch reveals that it has started an investigation
– MacLatchy reveals, during an interview, that John Allen, the senior ministry bureaucrat, was the “anonymous” tipster who helped solve the problem