Hamilton needs extra $50 million a year to upgrade aging wastewater infrastructure: official

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Published September 5, 2023 at 10:51 am

Originally built in 1919, the Dundas Wastewater Treatment Plant last got significant upgrades in the 1980s. COURTESY OF CITY OF HAMILTON VIA TWITTER
Originally built in 1919, the Dundas Wastewater Treatment Plant last got significant upgrades in the 1980s. COURTESY OF CITY OF HAMILTON VIA TWITTER

With wastewater treatment plants that are more than 60 years old, the City of Hamilton requires an extra investment of $50 million per year in order to do needed upgrades and replacements, says a top official with the Hamilton Water Division.

“We have a backlog of infrastructure needs across the entire system and with new datasets that we’ve collected, we’ve estimated that over the course of at least a decade in order to manage that backlog, we would need an additional $50 million (per year) in investment,” said Mark Bainbridge, director of water and wastewater planning and capital, in a phone interview with inthehammer.com. “We have some of the oldest infrastructure in Ontario in Hamilton.”

Bainbridge said the City generally invests more than $150 million a year in the system but it’s not enough. “Our investments every year are increasing over time … but they still have that shortfall.”

The City hopes to attract funding, such as from other levels of government, to address the shortfall, Bainbridge said. 

The revelation about the $50-million funding gap comes as a report revealed the City of Hamilton is not keeping up with necessary upgrades and replacements for its aging infrastructure. “This results in an increased demand on maintenance staff and resources as assets remain in operation beyond their intended life cycle,” according to the City’s 2022 Wastewater Quality Management System annual report released in May.

“In terms of overall averages, our wastewater treatment plants are in and around the mid 60s years of age,” Bainbridge told inthehammer.com in the wake of the report’s release. “Wastewater pumping stations are getting close to 40 years average age. We’ve got some pipes in the ground that are much older … up to over 80 years of age.”

Hamilton’s key wastewater infrastructure ‘at the end of its life’ 

Originally built in 1919, the Dundas Wastewater Treatment Plant is “at the end of its life,” Bainbridge said.

“It’s rated in poor condition and needs investments to essentially rebuild that facility,”  Bainbridge explained. “It’s our smaller treatment centre, but it is a wastewater treatment plant that we’re anxious to rebuild at this time.”

He said the site got significant upgrades in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and the City has only been doing minor maintenance work for it and other sites since then.

The digester complex at the Woodward Wastewater Treatment Plant, which accepts stormwater and sanitary sewage, last got major upgrades in the 1960s, Bainbridge added. It’s part of a large wastewater treatment facility that breaks down solid materials that come from wastewater. The digested materials are treated so they could be transferred to another operation that dries them out before a private company sells them as fertilizer to places such as farms. The site, the biggest source of water flowing into Hamilton Harbour, is undergoing $340 million in upgrades under the City’s Clean Harbour Program.

As another key example, he said the lakefront Parkdale Avenue wastewater pumping station that manages storm  and wastewater flows is also at the end of its life. “We’ve been studying it to figure out how to replace that facility and improve its performance,” he explained. “It is an old, aging facility and it is in dire need of repair and replacement … So in order to address all these issues, we need to increase our investment and hopefully attract other levels of government to help us out.”

City doesn’t have ‘any new emergencies discovered right now’

He said the City has not found any urgent risks at the scale of the Chedoke Creek spill, which has already been managed and repaired. Between January 2014 and July 2018,  24 billion litres of raw sewage had leaked into the creek because of an open bypass gate. The City of Hamilton was fined $2.1 million in July after it pleaded guilty to the Ontario environment ministry’s charges related to the spill.

“We’re inspecting and looking for those risks and we have found them in the Chedoke Creek example and a few other more recent examples. But those have been addressed, managed and repaired and we haven’t got any new emergencies discovered right now.”

The Wastewater Quality Management System Annual Summary Report from 2022 also determined that “vertical and horizontal infrastructure is generally found to be adequate and available when needed,” however, because of a lack of infrastructure upgrades, “assets remain in operation beyond their intended life cycle,” putting pressure on maintenance staff and resources. Vertical infrastructure refers to wastewater treatment, storage and pumping, and horizontal infrastructure refers to assets such as wastewater collection pipes and regulators.

Bainbridge said the pressure on staff and resources relates more to the City’s older aging systems. “When you run an older system, the teams need to react to things that are unexpected more often,” Bainbridge said, noting the City needs to adopt a more proactive maintenance program and improve the infrastructure so it doesn’t break down unexpectedly. “There’s always more levels of reactive maintenance necessary in an old and aging infrastructure (system) that we have here in Hamilton.” 

The Hamilton Water Division voluntarily developed the Wastewater Quality Management System (WWQMS) in 2020 as part of the City’s efforts to ensure “wastewater that meets or exceeds applicable legislative, regulatory and other requirements.” The system is a set of policies and procedures meant to effectively and efficiently collect and treat wastewater. 

The City pledged to implement “corrective action plans” from the audit “to ensure continual improvement of the WWQMS.”

The audit is a process audit for operating systems rather than a field audit, Bainbridge added. This involves updating procedures and manuals, looking at the proactive replacement of infrastructure parts and proactive programs instead of reactive programs.

‘Maintenance and improvement of the system continues to be a high priority’: report

In 2020, the City identified eight “significant environmental aspects” in the wastewater system, such as hazardous waste disposal in sanitary and combined sewers leading to sewer damage, pumping station failure causing spill and overflow, and major sanitary and combined sewer breaks causing spill. 

Based on the City’s targets, some key findings of the report in 2022 include: 41 per cent of industrial, commercial and institutional sewer discharge permits were processed within 90 days, 15 permits expired without a new permit in place, and 71 per cent of Notices of Violation were sent within three weeks of being posted. In addition, the review found that the Woodward and Dundas wastewater treatment plants were in 100 per cent compliance with their Environmental Compliance Approvals, but the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan limits for total suspended solids, total phosphorous and total ammonia nitrogen were not met.  

Of the 10 non-compliances from the external audit conducted by Wood PLC, seven cases were closed in 2020 and 2022, but three remain open in 2023, which “are tied to maintenance projects and corrective actions are ongoing,” according to the report.   

Bainbridge said the three non-compliances do not refer to specific sites or sewage spills. Instead, they are related to operations and maintenance documentation. For instance, he said it means reviewing preventative maintenance programs, updating paperwork and matching up the documentation with the activities performed and using a proactive replacement strategy for devices. “So that’s one area of improvement that we’re looking to do,” he said.

“Maintenance and improvement of the system continues to be a high priority,” according to the report. 

As for the Notices of Violation, he said they are “confidential.”

“We do have an environmental monitoring enforcement team, they generally will issue Notices of Violation for offences that they find under our bylaw and those are issued to owners of systems,” he said. “We expect that they take actions and if they do not come in compliance following the Notices of Violation, then investigations can be conducted that may or may not lead to charges under our bylaw. In terms of specific details of who, when and where, those involve people in private companies so they’re confidential.” 

He said the City has voluntarily collaborated with the local Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan stakeholder group for many decades. “We have goals to meet the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan targets, which are very stringent environmental goals that go beyond compliance for wastewater systems,” he said. “We’re striving to meet those stringent targets and help remediate the harbour in Hamilton and improve the water quality of that water body. … We meet our provincial regulatory requirements consistently.”  

He said the sewage spills such as in Chedoke Creek didn’t trigger the voluntary Wastewater Quality Management System and internal audit. Hamilton’s Wastewater Quality Management System policy was approved in 2020 and the first internal audit based on that system took place in 2021. “We follow that audit process in order to continuously improve our systems here in Hamilton and make them better over time,” he said. “The spills themselves were not a trigger for that. But certainly the spills did gain attention that provided us with opportunities to get greater resources to move forward with improvements in the system.”

 

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