Sept 25 2001

Kingston Whig-Standard

Province investigates sewage spill

The province’s environmental police have launched an investigation of a sewer spill in Kingston in which human excrement and toilet debris poured into the Cataraqui River for weeks.

“I will confirm that the matter has been referred to us and it is assigned for investigation,” said Allan Sudds, regional supervisor for the investigations and enforcement branch of the Ministry of the Environment in Kingston.

Sudds declined to say anything further about the probe. His department is typically secretive about its work.

The department has police-like powers to issue subpoenas, execute search warrants and conduct interviews. An investigation can lead to pollution-related charges against organizations and individuals.

Last week, The Whig-Standardrevealed that the city allowed human waste to flow directly from hundreds of city toilets into the Cataraqui River through a large storm sewer pipe on the west bank of the river.

The pollution may have flowed for 10 weeks, at a volume of more than 300,000 litres per day.

When the newspaper visited the site Sept. 18, masses of excrement and identifiable toilet waste were bubbling to the surface in a reedy creek that feeds into the river. A foul smell permeated the air.

The next day, the newspaper published a front-page story about the sewage spill, including graphic photos.

That day, a senior Ministry of Environment bureaucrat happened to visit the site, he said, in an interview Monday.

“I was surprised at what I saw,” said John Allen, acting area supervisor for the ministry’s abatement department. Allen’s department has primary responsibility to ensure city sewers don’t pollute area waterways.

Allen said his visit to the site was not related to the story.

“Not at that time . . . I don’t think it was in the paper at that time, was it?” Allen asked.

Allen said he became aware of the sewage spill Aug. 29, at which time his office ordered the city to develop a plan to find the problem and stop the pollution. A plan was provided to him Aug. 31, he said.

As a result of the Sept. 19 visit, Allen said he contacted the city, telling them that he suspected that an industrial operation was sending waste into the storm sewer.

“When we were down looking at the sewer that day . . . our feeling was that it was not just domestic sewage that was being discharged out of that pipe,” he said.

Allen said it is his understanding that is what led the city to discover the source of the problem and stop it.

In a news release issued Sept. 21, the city said an anonymous tip led utilities crews to a blockage in a sanitary sewer line and to the discovery of a “previously unidentified” underground structure that allowed sanitary waste to flow into the storm line.

Anonymous tip

The city’s top environment official, Paul MacLatchy, appeared to confirm Monday that Allen was the tipster.

“It’s our policy to say that a tip is an anonymous tip, no matter where it comes from,” MacLatchy said.

The city stopped the flow of pollution Sept. 20, three weeks after the ministry ordered action, according to Allen.

Allen referred a request for a copy of the city’s Aug. 31 action plan to MacLatchy.

“I think if we’re under investigation, we’re going to not [release] that,” MacLatchy said.

When first questioned last week about the leaking sewer, MacLatchy told the newspaper the city had commissioned a $25,000 investigation to find the source of the problem after determining there was no “quick fix.”

“That’s one of the things I think our investigation/enforcement branch will look into,” Allen said.

Did nothing

MacLatchy would not comment on the suggestion that the city did nothing to stop the pollution for at least three weeks.

“I can’t really comment because it’s the subject of an investigation,” he said.

“We’re satisfied that we stopped the discharge in a timely fashion.”

Laboratory tests done last week by the Environmental Bureau of Investigation, a citizen-led watchdog group, showed that water samples taken from the creek at the mouth of the sewer pipe had 1,500 times the level of E. coli at which public health authorities would order a beach closed.

Contact with the contaminated water, which is in an area freely accessible from the adjacent municipal golf course, could cause a host of serious medical ailments.

Allen said the ministry drew samples Sept. 4, but results of lab analysis are not yet available.