Got pollution? Lake Ontario city puts it in giant box

Jan 30, 2017

Jon Gee of Environment and Climate Change Canada stands on a platform overlooking a part of the Hamilton, Ontario, harbor called Randle Reef. It's one of the most polluted sites on Canada’s side of the Great Lakes. 

Behind him, water runs from a sewer drain into the harbor. This runoff is cleaner now, but years ago, this would be packed with chemical byproducts from the surrounding steel mills and other factories.

"This area of the harbor was used as basically a dump from industry and municipality and anyone else chucking their stuff in ... ” says Gee. "There's almost nothing that lives in here."

This chemical cocktail created a thick layer of black tar on the bottom of the harbor, which made it hard for fish and plants to survive.

Over the last few years, government agencies have been working on a plan to address this contamination on the western edge of Lake Ontario. Now, just off shore, you can see tall, yellow cranes, and a large metal structure sticking out of the water.

"What you're looking at,” says Gee, pointing to the structure, “is the first half of the Randle Reef engineered facility."

That is the official name for a massive steel box – the bottom rests on the harbor floor and the top peeks just above the water’s surface. It is built to hold enough toxic sediment to fill more than 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

These chemicals are so toxic they are not allowed to hit the air, or they can make the residents of Hamilton sick. So workers will move the sediment into the box with a giant, underwater vacuum.

It has taken decades for a project like this to get off the ground.

Chris McLaughlin, executive director of the Bay Area Restoration Council, says part of that may be due to Hamilton’s reputation.

“My own personal belief,” he says, “is that much of Hamilton’s reputation across the country came from a couple generations of Canadians flying in to Toronto on vacation, renting a car to go down to Niagara Falls, and seeing Hamilton from that bridge over there two times. All you would see is smokestacks.”

Now, McLaughlin and others say the city is changing. It is particularly evident from pockets of the city like James Street on the East Side.

Old, authentic ethnic restaurants and grocery stores sit beside trendy vegan cafes and cupcake shops. One big, brick building was built in the late 1800s as a hotel serving mostly military officers and their families. These days, a cafe serves cortados and lattes to young urbanites.

From this part of town you can't see the water, but McLaughlin says it is all connected. People are starting to recognize the waterfront as an asset, a place to walk your dog or ride your bike or watch the boats go by.

“This is the thing – the public realm – that if done properly is going to draw the whole community and people from outside the community, to come and want to be here to spend the day or spend the week or just wander around,” he says.

But that will only happen if they can clean up the chemicals in the water that make it dangerous to swim in, and harm birds and fish.

It is a story familiar to a lot of Great Lakes communities with industrial roots. Cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Milwaukee have already been hard at work cleaning up their coastlines.

The restoration project will take a few years. Once the steel box is built, they'll have to suck up all the toxic sediments and seal it shut.