The Cole Drain should be dry, but a dark material was noticed flowing through it last Wednesday, Aug. 17, near the Line 5 Landfill site, now closed. A berm was built to stop the flow,, and pumpers began emptying the drain the next morning, and were still pumping Thursday, Aug. 25 into huge dumpsters which were placed on the undeveloped road portion of Concession 5. The cause of the spill and the nature of the material was still unknown Thursday. (Photos supplied)
This story has been updated since The Local was printed Tuesday:
Nellie Keeler may know more about the Cole Drain and its history than anyone in town — she has lived on the same property for 47 years, and remembers when it became an agricultural drain named after the farmer who requested it.
That’s how agricultural drains began in Niagara-on-the-Lake, she explains — when a farmer wanted one on his land, he would ask the town, and if it was agreed it was necessary it was named after the farmer who initiated the project.
Early this week residents living nearby what the town is describing as a “spill” that was first reported the evening of Aug. 17 were concerned about the lack of information and communication about the situation.
Keeler lives at Line 6 and Concession 6, and the drain flows through her property. Neighbours have called it a creek, or a ditch, and all agree that because of the weather, it should be dry.
Since the spill, a berm has been created just south of a little bridge at Concession 6 to stop the flow of water, and the town, with direction from the region and the Ministry of the Environment, has been working to pump the spill from the drain, with huge dumpsters parked nearby to store it until it’s carried away.
Although Keeler explains the history of the Cole Drain and its purpose of draining excess water from agricultural land, she, like others, cannot fathom what might have caused the black water running through it, as well as a stagnant pond that just appeared north of the berm.
As a landowner of property through which the drain runs, she is assessed her portion of any maintenance of it, although her land is no longer farmed. It’s been many years since the drain was cleaned, she says, and cost her about $500 at the time.
Anyone who knows Keeler, the first woman to sit on NOTL council (she was referred to an alderman) and who served six terms, from 1973 to 1991, would agree she is feisty, outspoken, very knowledgable about much of town history, and still as sharp as ever about local issues.
“I know this drain inside and out,” she says, and as hard as she tries to picture a scenario of what has happened to it, she can’t. She is anxious to know how the spill occurred, and what it is, as are others, and she is frustrated that it’s taking so long.
One of her concerns is that she doesn’t believe anyone of those tasked with working on the issue of the spillage has walked the length of the drain from where it starts on York Road (she still calls it Hwy. 8), flowing north to Four Mile Creek. From there, it eventually enters Lake Ontario. In a report prepared for the region on the Line 5 Landfill, the drain is referred to as “a tributary" of Four Mile Creek.
“It wouldn’t be difficult to walk it,” Keeler says of the drain, or take that long — she’s 94, and she says she could do it.
She believes, because of the size of the spill, it would be easy to see it entering the drain.
Others have advanced theories of it being underground, but she disagrees — the ground in the area is so heavy with clay water would move through it very slowly, she says.
Keeler is also concerned about a large pond further north along the drain, and north of the berm, at the edge of her property. Pumpers were still syphoning off the spill south of the berm Thursday, more than a week after the work began, but nobody seemed to have looked any further along the drain or to be aware of the pond of stagnant water, covered in green algae, that should not be there after the recent dry spell. Near that pond, she says, on her property, is a small stand of pin oak trees, uncommon in Ontario. Although she would never consider having them cut down, she has been told they must be preserved.
The report for the region describing the landfill site in detail says the Cole Drain receives stormwater flows from roadside ditches along Line 5 and Concession 5 Road, as well as tile drainage from surrounding agricultural lands, such as Keeler has on her property.
Coun. Erwin Wiens, also concerned about the origin and the nature of the spill, advances a couple of theories that include a possible leak of leachate from the now-closed Line 5 landfill. The pipes containing the leachate travel south to St. Davids, and then to the treatment plant, and the leak could be along that route, he suggests, stressing it's just a theory. He discounts that it could be grape pumice, as suggested by others because of its colour, for a few reasons. It’s too early for growers to be disposing of grape leftovers — grapes haven’t even been harvested yet, he says. The quantity would be so great it would take several tractor trailer loads, which would surely have been seen by someone, and lastly, he can’t imagine a farmer committing what he says would be “a criminal act.”
Although he doesn't know what has caused the situation, he feels it has to be something accidental. "I don't think it was anything nefarious," he said.
He too questions why it’s taking so long to get an answer about what is in the drain, but says that is up to the Region and the Ministry of the Environment. The town is responsible for the clean-up, but is doing it under the watchful eye and instructions from the ministry.
CAO Marnie Cluckie confirmed Monday that on the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 17, town staff “identified what appeared to be a spill in the area near the Line 5 landfill.”
Families living nearby say they were woken up early Thursday morning by bright lights flashing in their bedroom windows, around 1 a.m. A crew with heavy equipment was working in the nearby creek by 4:45 a.m., they said, and when they contacted the town later that morning to inquire what was being done at such a strange hour, they were told “it was a hazardous emergency situation” and the town needed to create a berm, “as someone noticed suspicious dark water flowing through the creek.”
Another neighbour talked to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), and learned the town had been told to block the creek, which led to the development of a berm to stop the flow of water.
They were also told it was likely someone had dumped grape skins — the water, residents say, was black, and remained so this week — but they were told lab results of the contents of the spill were pending.
Neighbours told The Local they were uncomfortable they didn’t know more, concerned about the lack of communication, and about their pets and wildlife in and around the creek, including frogs, birds and other animals. The extent of the clean-up, they said, “is concerning,” indicating the severity of the spill.
By last Friday, Aug. 19, large dumpsters were brought in and lined up along Concession 5 between Line 6 and Line 7, neighbours said, and on Saturday, pumper trucks were going up and down the undeveloped portion of the road, and “still no communication from the town with those living in the area. If there is a health risk, if there is any danger to the public, or if there isn’t, that is information we need to know."
Pumpers continued Saturday night, neighbours said, with lights brought in to allow the work to continue, but stopped Sunday, “possibly because the undeveloped portion of the road is wet.”
Cluckie says when the town heard about the issue Wednesday evening, “staff promptly investigated,” contacted Ontario's Spills Action Centre (SAC), and took containment measures, “as is the protocol in these situations.”
An officer for the Ministry of the Environment provided direction to town staff late Wednesday evening, requesting the SAC contact the Region of Niagara and direct the region and the town to begin an environmental clean-up.
"The environmental officer from the ministry provides guidance, documents conditions, assesses the environmental and health impacts, provides direction regarding the incident, and ensures the spill event is responded to appropriately,” Cluckie said.
“Town staff, the Region of Niagara and an environmental consultant responded to this direction as effectively and efficiently as possible, and began the necessary actions to clean up the site.” The ministry has been kept apprised of actions taken, she said.
“While the spill's cause and source have not yet been definitively determined, lab analysis is currently being completed,” she said Tuesday. “Once the analysis is complete and the substance is known, additional steps will be determined, and more information will be provided to council and the public.”
The town “is doing everything practicable to address the concern and prevent and eliminate any negative effects from the spill,” Cluckie said.
"While I can certainly appreciate the many questions that result from a situation such as this one, unfortunately, there is not much more I am able to share at this time. Once the lab analysis is back, we will know more and can confirm some of the details.”
Cluckie explained the town is obligated to follow the direction of the ministry. "The town is responsible for ensuring adequate clean-up and restoration of the site. Staff is taking this matter very seriously and is providing great attention to this matter to ensure the town's responsibility is fulfilled.”
The provincial officer did not express concern “for imminent human or wildlife safety,” otherwise residents would have been told, she said at a committee meeting Monday, “and staff will continue to do their due diligence to ensure the health and wellbeing of those in the vicinity. Maintaining health and safety is of utmost importance to staff.”
Wiens acknowledges the residents’ concern for the contents of the spill is understandable. If nobody knows what it is, how can they be sure it isn’t dangerous, they ask. Wiens says that’s a fair question, but can only assume those doing the testing eliminated anything toxic.
Cluckie said Tuesday the town was anticipating the lab analysis would be complete and provided to the public later this week, but there was no news by Thursday afternoon.