Lakekeeper's roots in Hamilton
Environment Hamilton (EH) and Lynda Lukasik, executive director, work closely with Lake Ontario Keeper. This summer they will run Lakekeeper?s boat, the Victor, in the Hamilton Harbour, so we wanted to make sure all our readers in the area know about this great opportunity to meet Lynda and learn more about EH?s summer plans.
Also, I think it is only appropriate to talk a little about their incredible accomplishments on the eve of the opening of the offices in Hamilton.
While EH itself is less than a year old, its members have been leaders in the Hamilton environmental community for years. I hope their success will provide guidance to other communities, both on Lake Ontario and across the country. There are a few cases, in particular, that I have had the privilege to be involved with:
The Rennie Street dump looks very different today than it did when I first visited the site back in the spring of 1999. that's when Lynda and other members of her community contacted me with their concerns about potential contaminants from the site entering the Red Hill Creek.
Back then, the Rennie Street site was a huge waste yard littered with ravel, street sweepings, trucks and other stored machinery. The only way you could access the creek was with a pair of hip waders (after cutting through the Nash St. railway track) or by cutting below the City of hamilton's bridge walkway off of Brampton Street.
The east bank was heavily wooded and distinguished by the red mud that gives the creek its name. On the west ? where the dump was created ? these trademark banks oozed with a reddish brown, oily leachate. Many pipes stuck out of the earth, draining contaminants from the dump into the water. Garbage popped out everywhere, uncovered as the banks eroded back. The creek itself was absolutely full of fish of all sizes ? something I noted each time I visited the site over the course of the next few years.
The nature of those discharges going into the creek immediately concerned me. I set out looking for resources while Lynda ? along with people like Burke Austin, Ed Mahoney, Mike Hilson, Rita Chimienti, Don McLean, and Joe Minor ? organized community meetings to discuss the situation. As a group, they decided that Lynda would act as a private informant in a prosecution if it turned out the City of Hamilton was breaking environmental laws.
Over the next year, I visited the site and the group many times. We sampled the discharges, met with city officials, met with Ministry of Environment officials, met with counsel, and reviewed the thousands of press clippings the Hamilton Public Library had collected on Red Hill Creek issues.
Our research showed the contaminants from the site were toxic to fish, that they contained PCBs,and that the city knew about the problem but was doing very little to stop it. Counsel Doug Chapman (Sierra Legal Defence Fund), Lynda Lukasik, and I attended at the Justice of the Peace in Hamilton to tell him of our findings. A charge was laid against the City nearly six months after the investigation began.
Many people know about that eventual conviction and fine of the City of Hamilton, but there was also an incredible amount of unseen work and commitment demonstrated by all the people working with Lynda. This is exactly the type of commitment and presence that is needed in communities throughout the Lake Ontario watershed to ensure that other environmental problems are exposed and dealt with in a similarly effective manner. For Lynda and her colleagues, the presence became Environment Hamilton. For me, it became the Lake Ontario Keeper.
As for the Rennie Street dump, court order has brought about dramatic changes intended to protect the Red Hill Creek from further contamination. The site has been capped with drainage and rocks and no longer serves as a storage site for other wastes. The creek banks are being lined to catch the leachate before it discharges into the creek. Most dramatically (and rather sadly), the actual creek bed is being moved east to protect it from the underground migration of contamination.
Red Hill Creek today
While all of these remedial activities are expensive and create short-term stress on the fish and birds in Red Hill Creek, they will create a cleaner and more productive waterway in the heart of Hamilton. All EH needs to do now is ensure that the old "Pave the Valley" proponents don't build an expressway over the creek that the community has been working so hard to protect. The green space the proposed expressway would occupy is the last green space with running water in Hamilton.
(It was my time spent in the Hamilton Public Library where I discovered that in the 1970's the proponents of the expressway were called "Pave the Valley". They have since changed their name to the Get Hamilton Moving Task Force, but I like Pave the Valley better ? at least it was honest).
Lynda, Eric, Doug and I were touring the harbour in the
last September when we came across
These blobs were located close to the Stelco Hilton works outlet, very near the Randle Reef. It was impossible to tell where the blobs were coming from but they were clearly visible and sticky. So sticky, in fact, that they stuck to the hull of the boat like tar.
We sampled the blobs, as did a local television crew from CH, and both results showed astronomical levels of PAHs. We visited the site by boat every day we were in Hamilton (seven times over four days) and made note of the blobs every time. Unfortunately, we had to go back to Toronto and leave Environment Hamilton and Lynda with no boat to access the problem and continue monitoring and research into its origin.
We put together a brief on everything we found and sent a letter to the MOE regarding our findings. The MOE wrote back, however, and told us they would not investigate without an clear idea first of who was causing the problem. This was a real set-back, as there was little Environment Hamilton could do without a boat and the Angus Bruce was on its way back to Wolfe Island for the summer. Further, it seemed odd that environmental police in Ontario won't investigate evidence of pollution crimes if the public can't pinpoint the source.
It was the combination of all these events that spurred LOK and Environment Hamilton into forming a relationship that would see the Victor arrive in Hamilton as a full-time presence on the Harbour waters. The boat will certainly serve as an important tool for Environment Hamilton and LOK to achieve the goals of protecting the waters.
Environment Hamilton will serve as more than merely a representative of the waterfront community, as their mandate extends beyond the water?s edge. The investigations Environment Hamilton has now undertaken into the complaints from the community around the Henkell site marks another important and necessary function that Environment Hamilton will serve.
EBI investigator Eric Mattson was receiving calls for help from a community concerned about contamination at the old Henkell property, now the site of St. Mary's High School. After visiting the site and reviewing documents, he felt the issue needed greater expertise than we were able to contribute at the time. Environment Hamilton has filled this role, and we can expect important news about this site in the near future.
In what I believe is one of the most significant environmental victories on the lake, Environment Hamilton worked cooperatively with Ministry of Environment officials to force the City of Hamilton to deal with contamination running out of specific pipes into the Red Hill Creek.
I find this accomplishment amazing because usually very little is done about a problem that afflicts almost every community I visit on the lake.
It was during our visit last September when Doug Fletcher, Lynda and I walked the Red Hill and found an oily sheen over the entire creek. We followed the sheen up the creek ? taking pictures all the way ? until we found a large pipe discharging a milky white oily substance. It had a strong odour. We phoned in the problem to the Ministry of Environment.
As a result of that visit, Lynda and her group took on the challenge of monitoring that pipe and others on the creek as often as they could. Further, they took advantage of Ministry of Environment tools by phoning the spills in to its hotline. As a result of this diligence, Ministry officials were able to collect evidence and take action to fix the problem by issuing orders for the specific pipes.
And in conclusion . . .
As the Lakekeeper, I work all around Lake Ontario. My experiences are providing me with great insight into the environmental issues that plague all of our lake communities.
Perhaps more importantly, though, I have had the great privilege of working with groups like Environment Hamilton, to learn from their successes, and to learn to recognize the pitfalls that we often never expected to find.
Hamilton, Lake Ontario, and Canada are seeing a unique environmental force emerging. It is one that is making important inroads for all of us by exploring the difficult issues that must be overcome for us to see our communities and waterways improved and protected.
Thanks to everyone at Environment Hamilton. The LOK staff looks forward to working with you this summer.