Sewage spill disasters prompt Hamilton to beef up staff, resources
Published September 26, 2023 at 4:29 pm
Hamilton is bolstering its staff and resources to prevent sewage spills and maintain its aging wastewater and sewer system, a move that’s estimated to cost the City just over $2 million.
The $2,010,000 projected cost includes the hiring of 12 permanent staff and purchase of vehicles and equipment, taking into account savings from eliminating the need for contractors to do specific duties and overtime hours.
City council on Sept. 13 ratified consultants’ recommendations in a report to add 12 permanent staff dedicated exclusively to work on Hamilton’s new sewer sampling program and enhanced sewer inspection program in efforts to mitigate risks, including preventing untreated sewage from leaking into the natural environment. A provincial order required the City to develop the programs in response to two significant wastewater and sewage spills at Burlington Street and Rutherford Avenue.
Based on its conversations with Ontario’s Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks, Hamilton Water said it understands that Hamilton may receive another follow-up provincial order mandating it to implement the sampling and inspection programs if it does not do so voluntarily.
“Clearly, they are necessary and that’s to make sure that our wastewater collection system is operating the way that it should without any unplanned discharges into the natural environment,” Nick Winters, director of Hamilton Water with the City’s Public Works department, told council during the Sept. 8 meeting. He indicated that Hamilton Water will have more staffing requests within the next four months or so.
Winters noted that the province is investigating the City in the wake of the Burlington Street and Rutherford Avenue spills. “There’s potential the City could be charged under legislation and we know that we just paid a fine related to the Chedoke Creek incident so there’s financial risks associated with that,” he said.
The decision to boost Hamilton Water’s staff and resources comes as Mark Bainbridge, director of water and wastewater planning and capital, revealed to inthehammer.com that the City has a backlog of infrastructure needs and will require an extra investment of $50 million per year in order to do necessary upgrades and replacements.
In his presentation to council, Shane McCauley, director of water and wastewater operations, said five new permanent staff for the sewer sampling program includes an environmental enforcement officer, two field technicians, environmental quality and compliance technologist and one lab technician. With salaries ranging from $82,0000 to $111,000, the total compensation is estimated at $580,000 for the additions. Two vehicles and basic field equipment will also be needed, with one-time capital costs of about $175,000 and annual operational costs of about $20,000. The additional staff and resources will save the City $100,000 annually since the contractors doing the job now will no longer be needed, he said.
Hamilton Water also recommended hiring four permanent staff for the ministry-required “enhanced” sewer inspection program, including a water distribution and wastewater collection superintendent to oversee the program, an operations technologist and two wastewater and stormwater collections systems operators. Salaries range from $81,000 to $136,000, with total compensation of $501,000 for the new employees. Moreover, two new vehicles and some field equipment will be needed with the same costs as the sewer sampling program. Extra CCTV cameras will cost $140,000 for high-risk areas rather than the entire system, McCauley added. For all these additions, the total net budget impact is $836,000.
McCauley pinpointed two key risks in the system, including a staff shortage for the water distribution and wastewater collection outstation team. The team currently has a supervisor, superintendent, and two water and wastewater treatment operators dedicated to the Dundas Wastewater Treatment Plant, he said. Two other operators are dedicated to the inspection and maintenance of over 80 wastewater outstations and combined sewer overflow facilities, which need to be visited regularly to ensure they’re functioning properly.
He said illnesses, vacancies, training and vacations can cause absences and make staffing a challenge. “We have found that oftentimes we are left short an operator,” he explained. “We only have one operator to do inspections, or we don’t have any operators and we’re having to pull folks in on overtime in order to complete those inspections and meet our regulatory requirements.”
Consequently, those factors increase costs, McCauley said, explaining it amounts to about $60,000 a year in overtime. As well, the current staff can’t do all the necessary inspections and the maintenance team faces added pressure to do the inspections if an operator is not available, he added. For this team, he said Hamilton Water recommends adding two water/wastewater treatment operators, with a total estimated compensation of $211,000 for both, in order to increase the number of inspections to at least twice a month and perform preventative maintenance.
They currently do inspections once a month, often with just one person. “So it limits the type of work they are able to do there,” he said. “Sometimes it’s literally opening the door, having a look (if) is everything okay and moving on.”
Two new vehicles are also recommended with one-time capital costs of about $150,000 and annual operational costs of about $20,000.
For the second risk, staff identified the shortage of a manager for water distribution and wastewater collection unit, McCauley said. The division is the largest at Hamilton Water with 98 staff, a $23-million operating budget and $15 million capital budget for repairs and capital works, all under one manager.
He said the team has done “an exceptional job” in managing its portfolio and won awards for programs. “Asking a single individual to perform at such high level indefinitely is a risk not only to the organization but also to (the) individual,” he told council.
City staff recommended adding a second manager to the team, effectively splitting it into two, to help mitigate risks in a large, heavily regulated portfolio. One manager of water distribution and wastewater collection will see a total compensation of $186,000. He noted it will mitigate the $60,000 cost of overtime.
Ward 6 Councillor Tom Jackson asked what is the full impact of the additional staff and resources to ratepayers. Winters of Hamilton Water said it will still be determined, accounting for the 2024 budget.
The Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks issued an order to the City of Hamilton in January in response to the Burlington Street wastewater and sewage spill and the Rutherford Avenue spill that both occurred over 26 years. The City said all requirements in the order were completed by the June 30 deadline.
The Burlington Street spill had caused the discharge of about 337 million litres, the equivalent of 135 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with sanitary sewage into Hamilton Harbour. It was identified on Nov. 22, 2022. Similarly, the Rutherford Avenue spill was discovered Jan. 9. It resulted in about 59 million litres of sanitary sewage leaking into the Hamilton Harbour from 11 properties.inthehammer's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising