Facing a “firestorm” of criticism on social media, the mayor of a Montreal suburb says he will introduce new measures to crack down on lead leaching into the city’s tap water and to release more information about testing results.
Côte Saint-Luc Mayor Mitchell Brownstein made the comments in an email to Global News after the city received dozens of comments on its Facebook page in response to a joint news report by Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism that revealed the city had some of the worst tap water in Quebec.
The report was based on provincial data released by the environment ministry through access to information legislation that indicated Côte Saint-Luc had one of the highest numbers of samples collected that were exceeding a provincial standard for lead of 10 parts per billion (ppb) between 2015 and 2018.
Health Canada says that “lead is considered a cumulative general poison” with developing fetuses, infants, toddlers and children being the most susceptible to its health effects. These include behavioural problems or a loss in IQ for children and cardiovascular and kidney problems in adults.
The City of Côte Saint-Luc has known for at least six years that homes on its territory had dangerous levels of lead in tap water due to its own testing results.
An annual report about water quality in the city flagged high levels observed in 2013. The report said that the city had asked the provincial Environment Ministry and regional public health officials for guidance on what to do next.
The testing results released by the provincial government from recent years show that nearly three dozen Côte Saint-Luc homes had lead levels in water that exceeded Quebec’s safety standard, even after the taps had been flushed for five minutes.
The city refused to release its own testing results in response to an access to information request in September, describing the data as “recommendations” for an action plan. It also refused to release its internal correspondence on the issue, describing journalism students from Concordia University who had requested the information as “abusive.”
But Brownstein now says it will make this data available to everyone on its website.
It would all be part of a new plan with three key components, the mayor explained in his email, sent on Nov. 20. The first part of this plan would consist of accelerating tap water tests in order to get results from all homes in areas developed before 1976. The second part would be to offer water filters to affected homes with children under seven years old, pregnant women or anyone with concerns. The third part of the plan would consist of accelerating the replacement of lead service lines in partnership with homeowners.
“In my role as mayor I believe in leading on issues of importance and believe that together we can effect positive change on this issue throughout the province,” Brownstein told Global News in the email. “We wish to continue to be proactive.”
Lead service lines are underground pipes that connect some homes and apartment buildings with city water mains. Most municipalities stopped using them after the 1970s, but tens of thousands of these underground pipes remain in Montreal and hundreds of thousands remain underground across Canada.
When water comes into contact with these pipes and plumbing fixtures that contain lead, it causes the metal to deteriorate over time. The lead then leaches into the drinking water supply and gets released when people open their taps. Residents can protect themselves by removing the lead pipes and plumbing or using a water filter that has an NSF-53 or NSF-58 certification.
Brownstein said city council was scheduled to discuss further details of its plan in a private meeting on Nov. 25.
Many Facebook users were skeptical, asking the city to share more information.
“We have been living on our street for almost 20 years and have never been approached and after speaking to our neighbours, no one else around us has either,” wrote a user in a Nov. 20 comment posted on the Côte Saint-Luc Facebook page. “Unfortunately, these oversights on the part of the city have now resulted in a firestorm of rightful criticism by anxious residents. We are considering legal action.”
“When did the city FIRST learn about this problem if you test regularly?” asked another Facebook user. “Why so long to tell us?”
In response, Brownstein noted how guidelines had changed in recent years. He also suggested that exceedances recorded in the city were not “some crazy high numbers.”
A separate comment posted by Brownstein’s Facebook account said that there was “absolutely zero risk” of lead in water delivered to homes built after 1976 or to condos and apartment buildings since their underground service lines are not made of lead. However, households such as these could still be at risk of lead contamination in water from plumbing fixtures containing lead or lead solder on the private property.
Brownstein also confirmed that the city had recorded 46 tap water samples between 2015 and 2018 with levels of lead that exceeded the Quebec standard.
This despite putting out an early morning statement on Nov. 19 that claimed the numbers reported by Global News were false.
The city statement, posted on Facebook just before 1:00 a.m., said that only 36 homes had results exceeding the standard.
Brownstein later told Global News in an email that the 46 samples included some homes that were retested after their first test and still had lead levels that were exceeding the provincial standard during their second test.
He also said in his email that the number of homes affected was 33 and not 36, as the city had previously stated.
The city said it was offering to replace public lead service lines next to homes that had tap water exceeding the Quebec standard.
Brownstein declined to provide his new comments on camera, stating that he was disappointed that Global News had aired footage of him from an Oct. 29 interview, when he said he didn’t have responses to questions such as the number of test results exceeding safety limits in previous years and the amount of money the city had spent on its contract with an engineering firm that manages the city’s water supply. A review of city council minutes and financial documents revealed that the city had spent at least $30 million on its water contracts since 2006, when it demerged.
“Asking questions about $30 million expenditures and the number of samples taken and our ranking, without providing the time to consult with staff and airing the footage of my inability to respond will be something I will remember going forward,” Brownstein wrote. “It served no purpose in furthering our joint responsibility to work together as leaders effecting positive change.”
The 46 samples from Côte Saint-Luc that exceeded the limit were the third-highest total in the province for the 2015-2018 period. Only Montreal, with 67 samples above the standard, and Gatineau, with 62, were worse, according to testing results released by the provincial Environment Ministry to the Institute for Investigative Journalism through access to information legislation.
Côte Saint-Luc said it wasn’t fair to use these numbers to characterize it as having some of the worst tap water in the province. The city said that it would be a “fairer comparison” to state percentages of samples that exceeded the standard.
By those measures, in 2018, Côte Saint-Luc had 36 out of 50 samples, or 72 per cent, that were equal to or exceeding the new recommended federal safety limit of five parts per billion of lead, followed by Westmount, which had 18 out of 27 samples, or 67 per cent, and Montreal, which had 34 out of 59 samples in that category, or 58 per cent.
The only municipality that had a higher percentage of samples that were equal to or higher than the recommended federal limit was Chute-aux-Outardes, a small town with a population of about 1,600 on the north shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway. It did only two tests and both came back above the federal limit.
David Kaiser, a scientist who works for Montreal’s public health agency, said he reviewed the numbers from Côte Saint-Luc and Montreal over the past five years and concluded that they have a similar problem with lead in tap water for older homes that are connected to water mains with underground lead service lines.
“The proportion of houses of lead service lines that have lead levels over the regulatory norms is high and when we come back to lead as a contaminant where there isn’t a safe threshold, the solution is taking out those lines,” Kaiser said in an interview.
“It speaks to the fact housing types in the municipalities that are right next to each other is similar.”
Montreal has previously announced plans to test 100,000 homes over the next three years and to make it mandatory for homeowners to replace the portion of lead service lines on the private side of the property line. Westmount also recently announced it would increase water infrastructure spending by 25 per cent in 2020, which would free up new funds to replace lead service lines. Westmount has also said that seven of its samples from 2018 were from homes tested previously.
In response to these statistics, Brownstein told Global News that among the homes tested for the first time in 2018, 26 out of 40 were at or above the five ppb limit.
He also said that Côte Saint-Luc, with a population of about 32,000 people, was testing more per capita than any other city.
This isn’t accurate.
One of Côte Saint-Luc’s neighbouring cities, Montreal-West, with a population of about 5,300, did more tests per capita in 2018, when it reported 20 test results. Nine of the smaller city’s samples, or 45 per cent, exceeded the guideline.
Montreal-West did not respond to requests from Global News for comment.
with files from Katherina Boucher, Lillian Roy, Gabriela Simone, Concordia University
Series producer and faculty supervisor: Patti Sonntag
Research coordinator: Michael Wrobel
Project coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Editorial assistants: Declan Keogh, Lea Sabbah, Brigitte Tousignant, Fabio Luis Leon-Rosa
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University