On September 20, a mysterious black substance spilled out of a storm drain and into a section of Fletcher’s Creek in Brampton. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper happened to be on hand both the day of the spill and before, filming restoration work on the creek. The creek just so happens to be home to the redside dace, an endangered fish found primarily in the Greater Toronto Area.
The before-and-after photos tell the story:
Waterkeeper’s Rebecca Harrison took action. She made calls to the local media and the Ontario Spills Action Centre to make sure this spill got looked at. Observations were made, samples were taken (still being analyzed), and further investigation to seek out the source of the spill is ongoing.
The actions taken by Waterkeeper are those anyone who sees a spill should take. It is more than possible for a spill to not only be looked at, but investigated and even cleaned up, where possible.
What is a spill?
According to the Ontario Spills Action Centre, spills are releases of pollutants that typically meet the following criteria:
They are released into the natural environment.
Released from a structure, like a vehicle, or from a sewer pipe.
Are abnormal in quantity or quality.
Some examples of spills include petroleum, pesticides, and sewage. The Spills Action Centre also recommends you notify them whenever blue-green algae blooms are sighted.
What should I do when I see a spill?
If you see a spill, there are two very important things you can do: document and report.
Take photos or even videos of the spill. Collecting visual evidence is the most important thing you can do, and a rule everyone should follow to save our waters. No matter how well you describe a spill—or any pollution you see for that matter—a photo often makes more of an impact. Furthermore, photos and videos cannot be so easily refuted.
Once photos and videos are taken, write down some observations:
Time you noticed the spill, and the date.
Pinpoint your exact location.
Try and get an estimate on the size of the area where you see the spill. Is it contained in one area? Is it dispersing to a larger area?
Take note of the weather.
How does the water look. Is the spill affecting water colour and clarity, like it did for Fletcher’s Creek? Is the spill just on the surface?
Try and look for an obvious outflow point. A nearby storm drain, or boat, where the spill may occur from are prime examples.
Is this a one-time occurrence, or have you seen this before? Ongoing spill sightings are even more critical to report, so if you happen to be aware of one, document and report each time you see it.
Describe the spill substance itself as best you can. This is critical for when photos can’t tell the whole story. Often it is difficult to get good pictures on a sunny day because the glare on the water.
How do I report the spill?
Once you have sufficient means of describing the spill and some photos, it’s time to report the spill. In Ontario, there are a few people you can report to.
Ontario Spills Action Centre
Call 1-800-268-6060 (toll free/24 hours a day) to reach the Ontario Spills Action Centre. Environmental officers from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change will take your report and act on it.
The more people who report a spill, the more likely government is to understand the concern and respond.
Other numbers: 416-325-3000 (Toronto) or 1-855-889-5775 (TTY).
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry TIPS line
The spill you see may have a detrimental effect on the fish population. If you are concerned about fish life, or see dead or injured fish, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry should be called as well. Call them at 1-877-TIPS MNR (847-7667).
Your local Conservation Authority
Ontario Spills Action Centre should be the default number you call for a spill, but local services are helpful as well in getting a spill looked after. Call your local Conservation Authority. Their knowledge of the area can be helpful in protecting the watershed.
The Toronto Region Conservation Authority covers the GTA watersheds: 416-667-6295
311 Toronto and other local services
If you’re in Toronto, there’s a handy tool you can use to get pollution looked after called 311 Toronto. Use this number when it is something obviously city-related that is spilling into the waterway. For example, a nearby fire hydrant is leaking and discharging into the water.
311 can be found in various cities in Ontario, so check to see if your community has it or a similar hotline for reporting.
If you see a spill in the Toronto Harbour, PortsToronto is another resource you can tap into. They have a 24/7 Harbour Hotline (416-462-3937) to respond immediately to any reports on pollution, spills, or debris in the Harbour.
If you know of spill reporting numbers in other cities, please let us know in the discussion section below.
Make it public
The spill you see deserves attention. It’s a public health issue, other people may come and swim or interact with the water. So get the word out after you have called authorities. Share pictures on social media. Call local news organizations. Rebecca called three news organizations for the Fletcher's Creek spill, and they all covered it: CBC, Toronto Star, and Brampton Guardian.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper
Waterkeeper has a pollution reporting tool of our own. We document and archive all incoming pollution reports and add it to our database. Our role is to not only to be an ear that will listen, but we also try and help you understand the cause of the spill and action you should take.
Even if you have already called the Spills Centre, we still appreciate hearing your report and logging it in our field reports database.
Report spills and other forms of pollution at: waterkeeper.ca/report-pollution.