Editor’s note: This article was updated at 10:51 a.m. ET on Nov. 19 to include a new statement from Côte Saint-Luc disputing provincial government data indicating that it had 46 lead exceedances in tap water samples between 2015 and 2018 and stating that it only had 36.
The Montreal Island city of Côte Saint-Luc has some of the worst tap water in the province, according to testing results for lead released through access to information legislation.
The test results, compiled by Quebec’s Environment Ministry, show that 46 tap water samples from the Montreal Island city of 30,000 people had more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of lead over a four-year period from 2015 to 2018.
This is the third worst level of unsafe lead-tainted tap water in Quebec.
Only Montreal, with 67 contaminated samples, and Gatineau, with 62, were worse over those four years than Côte Saint-Luc — a bastion of English-speaking Quebec that demerged from the Montreal megacity in 2006.
The sampling data was released to Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism as part of a joint investigation with Global News, Le Devoir and the Toronto Star.
The numbers appeared to come as a surprise to several city officials, including Mayor Mitchell Brownstein.
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“Well, the only data I have is from last year. I know it was three out of 40,” Brownstein told Global News in an interview on Oct. 29.
“You’ll have to speak to the urban planning department to get more official information on tests, but that’s the results I got.”
The city’s director of urban planning, Charles Senekal, said he was not familiar with results over the past few years, either.
“But I can tell you, if I just look at this year’s tests, and I’m really basing that statement on that, we had three that surpassed the threshold whereby we would recommend that our pipes get changed. So to have 46 in that brief period… if you just did the math, it just seems off.”
However, the numbers released by the Quebec government tell a different story. They show that five samples from Côte Saint-Luc exceeded the Quebec standard in 2015, followed by 17 in 2016, 13 in 2017 and 11 in 2018.
Technicians collected these samples between July and September in each year, using a testing method that requires flushing taps for five minutes prior to collecting a sample.
After this article was published, the City of Côte Saint-Luc released a Nov. 19 statement disputing the provincial government’s data. The city said it had a record of 36 tap water samples that were above 10 ppb between 2015 and 2018.
Experts say this method underestimates lead exposure in homes since it flushes out water that has been lying stagnant in underground pipes that is more likely to contain higher concentrations of lead.
In response to previous reporting by Global News and its partners in October, Quebec Premier François Legault said that the provincial government would be changing rules that require cities to use this method and would instead adopt more stringent testing methods recommended by Health Canada.
In addition, Côte Saint-Luc’s failure rate could increase once the province adopts a new safety limit recommended by Health Canada of five ppb.
The highest lead result measured after flushing the taps in Côte Saint-Luc was 24 ppb in 2016, one of seven results above 20 ppb.
Although the Quebec government released data showing the failed tests in Côte Saint-Luc, the city has refused. As a result, it is not possible to know how many tests were conducted in total or to review all of the sampling results.
“The results of all lead tests conducted by the city are used to develop a plan of action to reduce the resident’s exposure to lead in drinking water,” wrote city official Jason Prévost in a Sept. 10, 2019 letter to the Institute for Investigative Journalism, responding to an access to information request.
“Furthermore, all lead tests are conducted by a consultant and are considered to be recommendations for the City.”
Global News was unable to find any evidence that the city has established any comprehensive plan of action to get the lead out of tap water. Senekal said on Nov. 13 that he had just briefed city council on Nov. 11 about some options.
Medical experts say there is no safe level of exposure to lead for humans. It can cause a variety of health problems such as high blood pressure and kidney disease in adults. It can also lead to complications in pregnancy and is especially dangerous for children, who can suffer behavioural problems or a loss of IQ points.
While many sources of lead in products such as paint and gasoline were eliminated in recent decades, it can still leach into tap water from underground lead pipes and plumbing fixtures that contain lead. In many cities, lead service lines were used up until the 1970s to connect homes and apartment buildings with eight dwellings or less to the water mains.
On the Island of Montreal, 21 out of 33 boroughs and reconstituted cities are believed to have thousands of lead service lines underground.
The City of Côte Saint-Luc doesn’t know how many of these lines are within its own territory. One recent estimate from the City of Montreal suggested there may be as many as 10,000 lead service lines in all of the demerged cities on the island, on top of tens of thousands of others within Montreal city limits.
“We don’t have an exact amount at all,” said Senekal.
“We have zero idea because at the end of the day, these pipes are buried, right? They’re underground.”
Côte Saint-Luc is different from most municipalities when it comes to water management. It awarded a contract in 2005 that is described as the first of its kind delegating management of the water supply and sewer systems, says Simo Management, a Quebec engineering firm.
The suburban city never managed its own water. Even before the Quebec government adopted a law in 2000 to create the Montreal megacity, Côte Saint-Luc’s water systems were owned and managed by Montreal. This continued under the forced mergers in 2001, until the demerger in 2006.
But it isn’t clear how much the city does to oversee that the company is ensuring safe drinking water.
The company said in a report from 2014 that it had detected high lead levels in some tap water samples in Côte Saint-Luc as early as 2013. It said it immediately submitted the information to the provincial Environment Ministry and public health officials for additional guidance, on top of working with the city on a plan to address the issue.
It also said at that time that it was planning to launch a program to replace underground lead pipes. Senekal estimated that about 200 underground lead pipes were replaced over the past five years.
Several journalism students from Concordia University have tried to obtain correspondence between the city and the company about lead in drinking water through access to information legislation. The students filed more than a dozen requests for correspondence on this topic for every year since the contract was awarded.
But instead of responding, a legal intern working for Côte Saint-Luc has written to a provincial information watchdog, the Commission d’accès à l’information, asking for permission to ignore all of the requests by suggesting they were “abusive” in nature and that the city doesn’t have enough staff to process the requests.
Brownstein, the mayor, told Global News that the scope of the requests was too “wide.” But he said he agreed that members of the public have a right to know if they have lead in their water and what their options are to protect their health.
The city’s director of urban planning, Senekal, said it would not be a good idea to share too much information that could lead people to panic.
“You really got to be careful, in this day and age, how you disseminate information,” Senekal said.
“As long as it’s controlled and … like I said, you don’t want to place people in a big panic for no reason.”
Several cities, including Montreal, Calgary and Regina, have responded to recent reports by Global News and its partners by pledging to post more of their data publicly.
Marc Edwards, an engineering professor from Virginia Tech who is credited with uncovering the water crisis that recently struck Flint, Michigan, said sampling data is generally considered public information now in the U.S., and he doesn’t understand why some cities in Canada are still refusing to share testing results with the public.
“What on Earth you would consider about drinking water that’s some kind of state secret… it always eluded me,” he told Global News in an interview.
Côte Saint-Luc first awarded its water contract in November 2005. At that time, the contract went to a now-defunct engineering firm called Dessau-Soprin, which delegated the work to its then-subsidiary, Simo.
Dessau would later cease operations following allegations of corruption and bid-rigging in municipal contracts. The company’s assets were bought out by other companies.
Canada’s Competition Bureau reached a settlement with Dessau in February 2019 following an investigation that found the company had rigged contracts in several municipalities, including some unnamed cities in the Montreal region, as part of a conspiracy between 2003 and 2011.
When asked if Côte Saint-Luc could be among those cities, a spokeswoman from the bureau declined to say, explaining that its investigations are confidential and that matters are then referred to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to determine whether charges should be laid.
Dessau paid a $1.9 million penalty as part of the settlement.
A separate company, Groupe Helios, told Global News that it took over Simo in 2015. It referred questions about drinking water quality and the contract to the city.
Anthony Housefather, who is now a Montreal-area Liberal MP, was mayor of Côte Saint-Luc when it first awarded the contract, but he and other city officials told Global News that they didn’t see any signs of corruption or bid-rigging.
They also defended the need for contracting out the service, noting that the Côte Saint-Luc wasn’t previously getting good service from the City of Montreal, but that it didn’t have enough in-house expertise to take control of the services.
Senekal said that the city is now getting “gold” service from the company, when it comes to response to emergencies such as water main breaks, an improvement from delays it experienced when the City of Montreal was managing the water system.
“I have seen absolutely zero wrongdoing,” said Senekal. “No corruption. Nothing wrong. Everything’s above board.
“They’re a great bunch of people, great firm. I’ve got nothing negative to say.”
The city has paid about $30 million since 2006 to the company as part of the water contract, according to a review of city council documents.
Brownstein said that working with the professionals at the firm ensures it will have expertise needed to solve its lead problem.
“That’s the beauty of working with an outside contractor. We don’t need to have in-house capability to do it. Simo is a big company and they have the capacity.”
Story by: Dan Spector and Mike De Souza
Investigative reporters, Concordia University:
Katherina Boucher, Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Lillian Roy, Gabriela Simone
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University:
Series producer and faculty supervisor: Patti Sonntag
Research coordinator: Michael Wrobel
Project coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Editorial assistants: Brigitte Tousignant, Fabio Luis Leon-Rosa, Lea Sabbah
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University