Citing Tainted Water investigation, Halifax Water advances offer to replace lead pipes for free

Click to play video: 'Halifax Water board voted in favour of replacing lead pipes, covering costs for customers'
Halifax Water board voted in favour of replacing lead pipes, covering costs for customers
WATCH: Halifax Water’s board has advanced a landmark proposal to offer free lead pipe replacements for its customers. The $14M proposal was recommended in light of the Tainted Water investigation, published by Global News and the Star Halifax. Elizabeth McSheffrey reports – Nov 28, 2019

Halifax Water is moving the dial forward on a landmark program to replace lead pipes on private property, citing an investigation published by Global News and the Star Halifax as a catalyst for action.

The utility wants to pay to replace every lead service line on customer property at a cost of $14 million — a proposal unanimously approved by its board members on Thursday. They also amended the motion to push the target completion date up from 2050 to “2039 or sooner.”

Click to play video: 'Halifax Water offering to pay to replace lead lines'
Halifax Water offering to pay to replace lead lines

“If you have a lead service line, the best thing to do is replace it,” said water services director Reid Campbell.

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“It is a public health issue and we feel we have a responsibility to work with our customers to deal with it.”

The sweeping offer is the first of its kind in Canada. Campbell confirmed there is no “direct precedent” for a program that pays for both public and private lead service line replacement, although other municipalities have various programs offering rebates, partial or conditional payments.

Halifax Water’s enhanced program will now go before the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board in its 2020 rate application. NSURB will conduct its own hearings and evidence-gathering before approving, or rejecting the request late next year or early in 2021.

READ MORE: Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country

Lead leaches into tap water from a variety of sources, including the underground lead pipes that link homes to city water mains or wells. The chemical can also leach into water from lead solder or some plumbing fixtures that contain traces of it inside homes.

Last month, a national investigation revealed that hundreds of thousands of Canadians have been unwittingly exposed to lead in their drinking water — many in dangerous concentrations exceeding Health Canada’s guideline.

In Nova Scotia, it revealed nearly a quarter of a million homes on private wells are at risk of lead contamination, and published a disturbing history of failed lead tests from Halifax Water, due to lingering lead service lines in aging public and residential infrastructure.

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The project was led by Global News, the Star Halifax, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, reporting students at the University of King’s College and other media and academic partners nationwide.

Halifax Water cited the Tainted Water investigation directly in its proposal, crediting the series with a 241-per cent spike in web traffic associated with lead within a week of publication, and customer requests for information between 25 and 50 times higher than normal.

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“It was the response to the recent articles in the Star and Global News about lead that, you know, literally — our call volume and website hits exploded overnight,” Campbell explained at the meeting.

Click to play video: 'Tainted Water in HRM'
Tainted Water in HRM

READ MORE: Tainted water in Nova Scotia — How do I get the lead out?

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech and an international expert in drinking water safety, called Halifax Water’s proposal a “breakthrough.”

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“Once one domino falls and a city is taking the moral and financial responsibility…others will see the wisdom and logic,” he responded on Thursday.

“After all, they’re in a public health, public service field. They are not private, profit-minded companies.

“They have a privileged position to do the right thing on behalf of their customers to achieve the best solution for the community.”

If approved by NSURB, Halifax Water will use a “triage system” to determine which lead pipes to replace first, anticipating one of the biggest challenges of the program’s implementation will be “managing expectations.”

Staff told board commissioners it would consider vulnerable properties first — those with children, pregnant women or high concentrations of lead, for example.

It will also time as many of the replacements as possible with the Halifax Regional Municipality’s paving program, which will save an estimated 30 per cent of the costs associated with the replacement work, and minimize the disruption of construction in neighbourhoods.

In this March 15, 2016 file photo, Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

There are approximately 3,500 private and 2,500 public lead service lines to replace at a total cost of $38.5 million. The utility estimates the new, enhanced program will result in complete lead pipe replacement 24 years earlier than if it had continued with its current regime of offering 25 per cent rebates to homeowners who undertake the replacement themselves.

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Between now and the time it hopes to have shovels in the ground, Halifax Water said that rebate will continue, and given the health risks of consuming lead, residents are encouraged to replace their own pipes if they can.

Graham Gagnon, an expert on lead and drinking water at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Water Resources, called the initiative “extraordinarily important.”

“It was a landmark decision in many respects when they offered the rebate maybe two or three years ago,” he told the investigation.

“Now to offer a sort of full replacement proposal is a tremendous offering. There’s maybe one to two other utilities in North America that are at that level.”

The City of Saskatoon, the closest example to Halifax’s proposal Campbell could cite in Canada, pays for 60 per cent of the homeowner’s cost for replacing lead pipes.

Edwards hopes Halifax Water’s initiative will set a precedent in Canada and the United States.

“I think it’s worth noting that morally and legally, those lead pipes are there, not by the choice of the consumer, but because of the laws in place at the time,” he explained. “I’ve never understood why (municipalities) invested so much time and energy arguing it was someone else’s problem.”

Click to play video: 'HRCE won’t be testing for lead in water until the spring'
HRCE won’t be testing for lead in water until the spring

READ MORE: Lead in Nova Scotia — schools a patchwork of data unavailable to parents, teachers

The entire proposition is music to Darren Jordan’s ears. The Halifax south-end homeowner knew about the lead service line in his own home when he bought it, and has a special filter installed to protect his to young children from the impacts of the pipes.

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“It’s something I’ve always heard of. Any amount of lead is an unsafe amount and it builds up over time,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea, and again, it has to be a co-ordinated effort. So you have to get everybody on board at the same time…I think needs to be done and sooner than later would be better.”

Halifax homeowner Darren Jordan reads with his two young children on Nov. 28, 2019. Grey Butler/Global News

Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that’s particularly dangerous for children. There’s no safe level of lead you can drink, and in kids, exposure is linked to ADHD, behavioural disorders, lowered IQ points and more.

Earlier this year, Health Canada recommended increasing restrictions on the limit for lead in drinking water — from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to five ppb, resulting in a new requirement for schools on municipal water systems to test their own taps. That requirement has been inconsistently followed in Nova Scotia to date.

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If the funding is approved, Halifax Water’s enhanced lead pipe replacement program is expected to raise water rates in the short-term.

The utility’s proposal follows other announcements in Quebec and Saskatchewan to improve and expand testing, along with other incentives such as free filters or rebates for affected households — proposals that were also triggered by reporting by Global News and its partners.

— With files from Ross Lord, Zane Woodford, Star Halifax, and Rob Cribb, Toronto Star

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