Hamilton councillors had a vision of the city as the global model of water privatization. So in 1995, they signed a deal with a private contractor to take over operation of its sewage treatment systems. They were promised money, jobs and major infrastructure investment.
The worst sewage spill in the city’s history
Barely a year later, that dream began to unravel after a failure at the main sewage treatment plant operated by the private company caused the worst sewage spill in the city’s history. The spill sent 182 million litres of untreated human waste, chemicals and heavy metals pouring into the Hamilton Harbor. Dozens of houses and businesses were flooded and the public was left to deal with the $2.5 million cleanup bill.
Investments drop, costs soar
The spill was only the beginning. Over the lifespan of the contract, the city saw the treatment plant’s workforce cut in half, rising charges for water services, environmental fines that sat unpaid for years, and even more sewage spills. Simultaneously, investments in repairs and maintenance decreased by 25 per cent, while transportation and disposal costs skyrocketed by 500 per cent. A number of acquisitions caused the contract to change hands several times and audited accounts provided by the private contractor to the city were not made public, reducing transparency and preventing elected officials and the public from accessing them.
Residents demand change
In April 2004, frustrated residents marched on City Hall, disrupting a council meeting and demanding more accountability. Hamilton returned its wastewater treatment services to public control in 2005 and immediately saw benefits. The city saved more than $5.5 million over the first three years of publicly delivered service. At the same time, ammonia levels in treated wastewater were reduced by half, reaching an all-time low.