Port and Climate History

Delving into the Great Lakes' Most Contaminated Waterfront

Port and Climate History

Delving into the Great Lakes' Most Contaminated Waterfront

Katie Campbell

Hamilton - 2022

Located in the southwest corner of Hamilton Harbour in the western part of Lake Ontario lies Randle Reef– the largest contaminated sediment site in the Great Lakes area. The affected sediment has the highest amount of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) contaminates that were introduced into the waters during Hamilton’s 19th century industrialization period. During this time of great industrial development, through the implementation of manufacturing to benefit the citizens of Hamilton and provide economic growth, the city of Hamilton had no understanding of the long-term effects that these industries would have on the environment. The contaminants have greatly affected the surrounding environment, communities, and wildlife that are associated with Randle Reef, creating a waterfront only meant for viewing, not enjoyment.

This substantial amount of contaminated sediment has created several health risks not only for the community but for the wildlife as well. One of the affected species is the Round Goby, an invasive species of fish that scientists suggest are exhibiting behavioural problems due to the polluted sediment found in Randle Reef, serving as one example of the disastrous effects that these pollutants have on every aspect of environment. Since Randle Reef has been dubbed the largest contaminated area within the Great Lakes, the Hamilton community and the Government of Canada have already set in motion a plan to reduce and eventually eradicate the high level of contamination. Beginning in 2012, this plan worked towards removing the pollutants by the end of 2021, and a follow-up plan, known as ‘stage 2’ was successful in removing the contaminated sediments by March 2022. By creating a restoration plan, Hamilton Harbour has already proven that even the worst polluted areas can be saved with strategic planning, as well as working towards understanding how Randle Reef became so contaminated from Hamilton’s industrialization in the first place. This waterfront revival displays the importance of studying ports and climate history to better understand the mistakes that historical actors have made in the past.

The contaminants found within Randle Reef are the result of Hamilton’s historical manufacturing hub, specifically steelmaking and coal gasification factories that were located directly near the harbour. These manufacturing industries first began to develop in the Hamilton region during the mid-19th century and in the midst of an industrialization boom. It was in the 1890s that Hamilton’s steel manufacturing caused the city to be known as the steel city1 since the industrial revolution during this period led to an increase in demand for steel and coal. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Canadian government also implemented bonuses and other types of deals, such as getting water rates lowered to stimulate the manufacturing industry.2 The government’s decisions to entice manufacturers and cities to create these manufacturing hubs resulted in more waste and sewage being dumped in places like Hamilton Harbour. Although this decision did benefit the economy and increased the manufacturing industry, maritime historians can now see the environmental effects of these industries and the potential long-term effects it left behind. Since all the industrial factories were located along Hamilton’s Harbour, it did not take long for the bay to be used as a dumping station for waste. Hamilton Harbour was readily available, and the city was more focused on developing their economic success rather than preserving the area they inhabited.

Despite the government’s lack of environmental policies during this period, the negative effects of industrialization soon brought these contaminated areas to the forefront as more environmental issues began to arise which prompted legislations to be put in place. Around the time that the Great Western Railway was brought to Hamilton in the 1850s, John William Kerr, who was a local fishery inspector at the time, stated that “fish caught in the Sherman Inlet tasted of coal oil emitted from two refineries at the water’s edge alongside the railway tracks.”3 There were already signs of pollutants affecting the wildlife surrounding the Hamilton area during the 1800s, despite the recent infrastructures being built, causing the Canadian government to try to implement some changes to benefit environmental areas. One of these changes was the Fisheries Act of 1868, which was implemented to stop industries from dumping waste into the water, but this did not prove very effective as those that greatly profited from these manufacturing industries simply turned a blind eye.4 These environmental issues have only recently been considered crucial in enacting change due to more awareness of the climate crisis, in which current governments and organizations are trying to undo centuries of pollutants that have shaped environments like Hamilton’s Randle Reef. Port history and climate history are deeply interconnected with one another, as historians cannot understand present-day environmental issues without having knowledge of what port cities signified, especially during the manufacturing boom. The contaminants that were left behind from the 19th century industries have had a significant impact on not only the Hamilton community but also the surrounding wildlife that relies on the bay to survive, becoming a deathtrap for both.

Although the 19th century prompted environmental legislatures to be set in place, Hamilton’s Randle Reef is the most contaminated waterfront of the Great Lakes. It has the highest documented concentration of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) within its sediments. PAHs are “known to be persistent and toxic,”5 which further demonstrates the seriousness of these contaminants polluting Hamilton Harbour. Other major contaminants that have been identified in the reef are oil, grease, and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)6, which are linked to the steel and coal factories. PAHs can not only affect different life forms within the environment, but it also has the potential to be harmful to humans.7 The Fish Consumption Criteria Update of 2020, for example, noted that the “PCB levels in some fish species have decreased in the past two decades; however, concentrations are still elevated compared to both nearby western Lake Ontario location.”8 Contaminants within the fish, as a result of Hamilton’s historical manufacturing hub, specifically steelmaking and coal gasification, greatly affected the ability for the people of Hamilton to rely on fish as a safe food source.

The Industrial Revolution brought economic success and urban growth for Hamilton, allowing the city to create a name for itself and its port. However, that success caused surrounding wildlife to be endangered due to the high amounts of contaminants uncovered in Randle Reef, with its sediments no longer providing ample nutrients and habitats for a variety of species. The Randle Reef Sediment Remediation Project Comprehensive Study Report, created by Environment Canada and the Hamilton community in December 2012, developed a plan that aimed to help “reduce exposure of biota to PAHs, thereby reducing the risk of impairment to [the wildlife’s] health, [and] to recover lost habitat for bottom-dwelling organisms.”9 This plan aids in cleaning the sediment of the PAHs which will develop a more sustainable home and food source, lowering the chances of altering wildlife food chains. In the study report conducted by Environment Canada of Randle Reef, it was noted that species such as fish and their habitats, water birds, and migratory birds were affected by the contamination.10 The contaminants ultimately caused a domino effect on wildlife, as the fish that dwell in contaminated waters then poison the birds that eat them.

One of these species of fish found in Randle Reef is the Round Goby fish, an invasive, bottom-dwelling fish that feeds on zebra mussels, who sequentially feed on the vegetation.11 Although the Round Gobies are an invasive species that consume the eggs of native fish, these contaminants are having a disastrous impact on all wildlife, whether they are invasive or not. A research study conducted in 2010 looked at the Round Gobies and their behavioural changes of those found in polluted waters versus those who were found in cleaner waters. Both sites were within Hamilton Harbour and the study was to see what long-term exposure to contaminations did to naturally aggressive fish.12 The study focused on non-reproductive male Round Gobies conducting both a behavioural and statistical analysis. The study concluded that in the behavioural analysis, the gobies’ aggressive behaviour was shown through assessment behaviour, meaning that they would assess an opponent’s size and strength, as well as through pursuit aggression and whether the fish would bite or chase an opponent to move away.13 The results of the study showed that contaminated fish’s hierarchy changed more often compared to the non-contaminated fish, who would have been the winner 78% of the time.14 These results demonstrate that although Gobies are naturally aggressive, the contaminated fish had a more unstable or shifting hierarchy compared to those that lived in cleaner waters.

The effects of the contaminants have also affected aquatic vegetation that usually grows in the sediment and is a food source for many sea creatures. The vegetation has been wiped out due to the toxicity of the sediment,15 leaving species without any habitat or food. These changes in the environment display how 19th century environmental history can be used to resolve present-day pollution issues. Researching how these species are being affected by pollution is integral to creating solutions to broader present-day environmental issues, as it provides the necessary evidence examining the negative effects that are occurring to wildlife, and potentially to humans. As Sara N. Giglia notes, “protection of the lakes for future use requires a greater understanding of how past problems developed, as well as continued action to prevent further damage.”16 The methods that will help fix climate issues are equally as important as understanding the changes through these pollutants.

Some studies have already showcased the effects that these contaminants have had on the wildlife populations surrounding Hamilton Harbour. Further plans and studies have also been implemented to work towards effectively reducing the high levels of pollutants from Randle Reef itself. A study conducted in 2013 by a sediment remediation project, specifically researching Randle Reef, investigated how a natural recovery of the contaminated sediment could be accomplished. Through this method, the solution would be a one-time process that would adapt and recover on its own, leading to a more natural solution to help wildlife species continue to cohabit in these areas. The study proposes adding a thin layer cap, consisting of clean sediment clay, over the contaminated areas to mix with the currently contaminated sediment followed by a stress test to see if these caps erode quicker to figure out the perfect cap layer for Randle Reef’s sediment.17 This study helped to understand how the cap layer would remain intact through various degrees of stress tests, as the conclusions stated that “BSS [or Bottom Shear Stress] from marine vessels clearly exceeds the critical shear stress for erosion for most of the surrogate vessels.”18 Large boats and other vessels cause a lot of erosion to the cap layer and ruin the restoration plan. The study goes on to suggest limiting the speed and power of these vessels when travelling through the affected area. The natural cure for the contaminated Randle Reef is still a work in progress, merely providing information on how the community can try to reduce the extreme levels.

The Hamilton community has taken part in assisting the recovery of Hamilton Harbour by advocating for strategies to display the changes needed to fix this issue. The Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC) is a local council focusing on Randle Reef’s restoration and is an organization established to represent the public interests of restoring the ecosystem’s health starting at Hamilton Harbour. The 2012 report provides information on how environmental issues have changed both positively and negatively over the years. Comparing the 2012 report to the previous ones from 2007, areas that involve researching and monitoring the environmental conditions as well as providing information about pollution occurring to the public has improved significantly, according to the 2012 report.19 On the other hand, areas like the control of erosion and implementation of stormwater management have declined, stating that “[b]etter sediment control techniques [are] needed” and there is always room for improvement.20

Understanding climate history includes recognizing the shifts in environmental issues and that changes that can be made regardless of the high numbers, but not seemingly overnight. This idea has been proven with Environment Canada’s Remediation Project and its in-depth plan to aid in the recovery of Randle Reef, stating that there was a decrease in PAHs in 2007, by 70-80% regarding air quality.21 The project’s timeline of completion was between 2014-2021 and was closely followed by completion of ‘stage 2’ of the contaminated sediment removal in March 2022. The third and final stage of the plan will go from the fall of 2022 to 2024 and will focus on isolating the contaminants to promote regrowth.22 The city of Hamilton has taken steps in the right direction through government plans of action and research studies on how historical port life has affected the community’s quality of life and environment and how to fix seemingly irreversible climate issues.

Hamilton’s waterfront has brought economic success through the 19th century industrial revolution and its association with steel making. The industrial boom helped Hamilton to develop its urban growth and provide jobs for the working class, but it was also the beginning of a substantial number of pollutants. Dumping waste in the water caused this natural habitat and water source to be contaminated to the point that Randle Reef has now become one of the most contaminated areas in the Great Lakes history. The number of PAHs derived from the steel and coal factories is a ‘hot spot’ for contamination, which has altered the food supply and habitats of neighbouring wildlife. These alterations have even changed the behaviours of some species, like the Round Goby fish, who have been documented as having an unstable position in their respected hierarchies. The Hamilton community has already established plans and objectives to try and reduce these high numbers of contaminates, with hopes of eradicating them in the near future so that they can utilize the beautiful waterfront. Being able to identify the industrial contexts that are integrated within port cities across the world provides the necessary context to understanding the environmental issues that are still prevalent today. To uncover the role that these ports have played within society is just as significant as discussing how these climate issues developed.

  1. Diana J. Middleton and David F. Walker, “Manufacturers and Industrial Development Policy in Hamilton, 1890-1910,” Urban History Review 8, no. 3 (1980): 21, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43561633

  2. Middleton and Walker, “Industrial Development,” 30. 

  3. Ken Cruikshank and Nancy B. Bouchier, “Blighted Areas and Obnoxious Industries: Constructing Environmental Inequality on an Industrial Waterfront, Hamilton, Ontario, 1890-1960,” Environmental History 9, no. 3 (2004): 468, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.2307/3985769

  4. Cruikshank and Bouchier, “Obnoxious Industries,” 468. 

  5. The Randle Reef Sediment Remediation Project Technical Task Group AECOM, Randle Reef Sediment Remediation Project Comprehensive Study Report (October 30, 2012), 11, https://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/p80001/84290E.pdf

  6. Technical Task Group, Randle Reef, 8. 

  7. Technical Task Group, Randle Reef, 11. 

  8. Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC), Ministry of Environment, and Conservation and Parks, Fish Consumption Criteria Update October 2020

  9. Technical Task Group, Randle Reef, 10. 

  10. Technical Task Group, Randle Reef, 27. 

  11. Natalie M. Sopinka, Julie R. Marentette, and Sigal Balshine, “Impact of Contaminant Exposure on Resource Contests in an Invasive Fish,” Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology 64, no. 12 (2010): 1948. 

  12. Sopinka, Marentette, and Balshine, “Contaminant Exposure,” 1948. 

  13. Sopinka, Marentette, and Balshine, “Contaminant Exposure,” 1950. 

  14. Sopinka, Marentette, and Balshine, “Contaminant Exposure,” 1952. 

  15. Technical Task Group, Randle Reef, 62. 

  16. Sara N. Giglia, “From Man vs. Nature to Environment vs. Budget: The Shifting Battles in the History of Pollution and Toxicity in Hamilton Harbour,” Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History vol. 3, Issue 1, Article 4, (2015): 25. 

  17. Matt Graham, Erin Hartman, Cheng He, and Ian G. Droppo, “Examining Thin Layer Cap Behaviour in a Freshwater Industrial Harbour,” Journal of Soils and Sediments 13, no. 8 (2013): 1517. 

  18. Graham et al., “Thin Layer Cap Behaviour,” 1525. 

  19. Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC), BARC Toward Safe Harbours Report (2012), 5-6. 

  20. BARC, Safe Harbours Report, 6. 

  21. Technical Task Group, Randle Reef, 46. 

  22. Environment and Climate Change Canada, “A Cleaner Hamilton Harbour: All contaminated sediment removed or capped at Randle Reef,” Canada.ca, Government of Canada, March 9, 2022, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2022/03/a-cleaner-hamilton-harbour-all-contaminated-sediment-removed-or-capped-at-randle-reef.html