Sept 22 2001

Kingston Whig-Standard

City plugs ‘astronomical’ sewage spill

by Rob Tripp

Lab tests reveal “astronomical” levels of E. coli bacteria in a reedy marsh along the west bank of the Cataraqui River where millions of litres of raw sewage has been mysteriously spilling from a large storm sewer pipe.

The finding comes on the same day that the city announced it located and fixed a problem, stopping the flow of excrement and debris from the toilets of hundreds of city homes that has been pouring directly into the river.

“It looks like we’ve solved the gross contamination problem,” said Paul MacLatchy, head of the city’s environment department, as he stood, dressed in rubber boots, on top of the 1.5-metre-diameter sewer pipe Friday.

When a Whig-Standardreporter visited the site at noon Friday, MacLatchy was in the creek, shoveling debris to allow water to flow freely.

The lab tests, the result of sampling by watchdog group Environmental Bureau of Investigation, show E. coli at 1,500 times the level at which beaches would be closed.

“It’s astronomical, it’s indicative of sewage pollution,” said Peter Moccio, a senior official at the Kingston district health unit.

The presence of E. coli is an indicator that a wide range of other organisms, including dangerous viruses, could be present.

Contact with the contaminated water could cause a host of medical problems, including infections and gastro-intestinal ailments.

It appears the spill continued unchecked for eight to 10 weeks, although the city claims it did not discover the problem until roughly three weeks ago.

The Ministry of Environment estimated that more than 300,000 litres of foul material flowed into the river each day.

MacLatchy said the city learned of the problem Aug. 31, during a stormwater monitoring inspection. Investigation did not suggest there was any “quick fix,” so MacLatchy asked for $25,000 from council to begin a detailed investigation.

After The Whig-Standardpublicized the leak, an anonymous caller to City Hall suggested works crews inspect a building in the Kingscourt neighbourhood that might have an illegal connection to the storm sewer.

MacLatchy said dye was injected into a toilet. It turned up in both the sanitary and storm sewers downstream from the house, indicating a problem. This led utilities crews to begin inspecting manholes.

This is when a previously unknown overflow structure was found.

“It looks like every other manhole,” MacLatchy said. “The overflow structure that was the culprit was unknown to us.”

MacLatchy said eight to 10 weeks ago a sanitary sewer line on Division became clogged. Instead of backups in homes or on streets, the sewage flowed into a storm line and through the mysterious overflow structure. The city stopped the spill by unplugging the clogged sanitary sewer line.

MacLatchy said he hasn’t been able to determine why the structure was built and why it wasn’t shown on city records. It may have to be eliminated.

Yesterday, what appeared to be clear water emptied out of the storm sewer, unlike the brownish-grey liquid pouring out Wednesday, when the Environmental Bureau of Investigation drew its samples.

Janet Fletcher, a local activist and founder of the Environmental Bureau of Investigation, accuses the city and the Ministry of Environment of failing to respond appropriately.

“They should have been out here on day one,” she said. “They should have been finding this blockage.

“It’s definitely not due diligence.”

Fletcher said the ministry and the city respond swiftly to pollution incidents only when there is publicity.

“If it hadn’t come out in the newspaper, nothing would have happened,” she charged.

Dirty water

The following are results of laboratory tests on water samples drawn from the west bank of the Cataraqui River where a storm sewer disgorged raw sewage for weeks. The sampling was done by the Environmental Bureau of Investigation, a non-profit group that pursues and prosecutes polluters.

Total coliform 300,000+

E. coli 150,000+

Background 300,000+

Fecal coliform 150,000+

units = colony-forming units per 100 ml of sample

Source: ETRL laboratory, Kingston