Canadian cities begin to address evidence that some of their tap water isn’t safe

Click to play video: 'Growing calls for governments to address lead water contamination'
Growing calls for governments to address lead water contamination
WATCH: Pressure is mounting on all levels of government to remove and replace lead pipes across the country, after a year-long investigation found hundreds of thousands of Canadians are being exposed to lead levels daily. Heather Yourex-West explains. – Nov 7, 2019

While some politicians have dismissed evidence uncovered through a joint year-long investigation by journalists about unsafe tap water, a few politicians are promising to take action.

The investigative report assessed 12,000 tap water test results, released through freedom of information legislation to Global News, Concordia’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and other partners. The data showed that 33 per cent of samples exceeded a recommended federal limit of five parts per billion (ppb) of lead.

Some of the highest lead levels in water samples were collected by city technicians in Regina and Montreal.

In response to the reports, mayors from both cities have made commitments to change policies to get lead pipes out of the ground.

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Regina Mayor Michael Fougere said he and his council were working on a motion to fast-track an existing plan to replace underground lead pipes since they recognize the urgency of the situation.

He also said the city is looking at how they could make it mandatory for homeowners to change lead pipes on their side of the property line at the same time that the city goes in to do the work.

“It is definitely a problem and we are not minimizing anything here,” Fougere told Global News in an interview.

“We want to make sure that we have the program accelerated so that [on] the city side, our connections are done right away and at the same time we do the homeowners side as well.” 

In October, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante responded to earlier reports by Global News, Le Devoir and the Institute for Investigative Journalism by pledging to test the tap water at 100,000 homes within the next three years.

Plante also committed to replacing the underground pipes on both sides of the property line, sending the bill to homeowners for their side of the line and giving them 15 years to pay the city back.

Click to play video: '‘I don’t want citizens to be worried’: Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante insists water is safe to drink'
‘I don’t want citizens to be worried’: Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante insists water is safe to drink

In addition, the City of Montreal launched a new website that allows residents to search their address for information about whether their property has any known lead service lines.

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“I think you have to applaud it,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech, when asked in an interview on Thursday about Montreal’s recent announcements.

In Edmonton, utility company EPCOR conducts hundreds of tests in homes without lead service lines regardless of when the building was constructed. Between 2015 and 2018, the utility says it found that 10 per cent of homes had lead levels exceeding the recommended federal limit.

The mayor agreed that action was needed, but defended the city’s water systems.

“Recognizing that the pipes need to change over time and there’s work to do — overall, I have full confidence in the water supply and integrity of it in our city,” Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson told reporters.

Edwards, who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, Mich., in 2015, said that cities in Canada are still well behind the U.S. when it comes to transparency and sharing their data so that the public can see the full slate of test results on tap water.

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In general, he said, this type of information is now considered public in the U.S. under existing federal legislation.

“What on Earth you would consider about drinking water that’s some kind of state secret… that always eluded me,” said Edwards.

“I think the best advice is to have complete transparency — to get all the information to the consumers in an understandable form.”

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said he was concerned that hundreds of thousands of people, including children in schools, might be exposed to lead in their drinking water.

“I know the conversation certainly happened in my own house about our drinking water, what does that look like? How do we test it?” McNeil told reporters on Thursday.

“Certainly, it’s concerning.”

Click to play video: 'Premier Stephen McNeil says findings of lead risk in communities is concerning'
Premier Stephen McNeil says findings of lead risk in communities is concerning

In Ottawa, where she attended a Liberal caucus, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said that the federal government was monitoring the situation and planning to work with the provinces and municipalities.

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Edwards said that while government is starting to tackle the problem, many people remain at risk as long as the lead pipes remain in the ground.

“There’s no magic pot of money to deal with it, but I think it’s just common sense that it’s time we finally ‘fess up to this problem and start rolling up our sleeves to get it fixed.”

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