Cities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec accelerate plans to ensure safe water, following investigation

Click to play video: 'Calgary council votes to fast track lead pipe replacement'
Calgary council votes to fast track lead pipe replacement
After an investigation by a media consortium including Global News and Concordia University's Institute for Investigative Journalism, Calgary is the next major Canadian city to take action on replacing old lead pipes contaminating drinking water. – Dec 3, 2019

The cities of Calgary and Regina both took steps on Tuesday toward accelerating the replacement of underground lead pipes in the wake of the Tainted Water investigation.

Councillors from both cities adopted motions at their respective city halls, aimed at speeding up efforts to ensure safe tap water. Their efforts coincided with new calls for transparency delivered to mayors by provincial cabinet ministers in Quebec.

The developments come in the wake of a year-long investigation, published in November, by a consortium of media outlets including Global News, the Toronto Star and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism. The investigation reviewed thousands of municipal tap water sampling results, revealing many Canadians were exposed to high levels of lead without being adequately informed by their local governments.

The investigation also revealed that some of the highest lead levels were found in Quebec and Saskatchewan.

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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 effects include behavioural problems or a loss in IQ for children and cardiovascular and kidney problems in adults.

The neurotoxin can leach into tap water from lead pipes, plumbing fixtures or faucets that contain lead. Older homes in cities across Canada — particularly those built in the 1970s and earlier, before underground lead pipes were banned — are the most at risk.

In Regina, council agreed to a proposal from Mayor Michael Fougere to speed up the replacement of underground lead service lines that link some houses to city water mains and extending a program that offers free filters to residents up to three years.

Fougere’s proposal called on the city administration to deliver its plan by March 2020 in order to ensure all lead pipes were removed by 2025.

“This a question of public health,” said Fougere on Tuesday.

“We have agreed by council that we will definitely compress it (replacement of lead pipes) from 20 years to five years. The way we pay for it will be up for discussion.”

READ MORE: City council commits to replacing Regina’s lead pipes within 5 years

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The plan also calls on the city to consider adding a non-toxic substance called orthophosphate to its water supply in order to control corrosion on pipes and reduce the amount of lead that gets into the water before people open their taps.

Fougere also said that the problem affects a few thousand homes in Regina built in the 1950s and 1960s.

“It’s contained to a small geographical area in the city, but they should be safe, they should have safe drinking water and we’re going to make sure that happens.”

In Calgary, city council adopted a similar motion calling on city officials to develop their own accelerated plan within the next four months.

“Providing safe, clean drinking water is the top responsibility of a municipality and we should treat this as its urgent,” said Calgary city councillor Druh Farrell.

Click to play video: 'Druh Farrell talks about notice of motion to remove lead pipes in Calgary'
Druh Farrell talks about notice of motion to remove lead pipes in Calgary

The city believes only a few hundred households are affected by underground lead pipes, but admits it has received a lot of calls from concerned Calgarians since Global News and its partners published their investigation in November.

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“Following the Star Metro and Global News report, we certainly did see an increase in calls from customers across the board,” said Russ Dueck, a senior asset planning engineer from the water resources division of the City of Calgary.

“It’s been any sort of home, homes that are in our database that could be at risk, and there are homes that have not been at risk. It’s been across the city, any customer of any year (of construction) has called us after that.”

READ MORE: City council commits to replacing Regina’s lead pipes within 5 years

Dueck also responded to criticism from some affected residents who told journalism students from Mount Royal University in a recent survey that the city hadn’t adequately informed them about health risks in its letters that warned about the possibility of lead pipes.

He said Calgary has already made adjustments to information on its website and messaging from staff who answer 311 calls. It is also hoping to have a “more collaborative approach between Alberta Health Services and the city on the communications that go out,” Dueck added.

READ MORE: Calgary doesn’t know how many homes have lead pipes that could make water unsafe

Meantime, in Quebec, two provincial cabinet ministers urged mayors across the province to take action in a new letter, obtained by Global News. The letter spells out plans to update regulations to improve testing methods and ensure that cities are required to be more transparent about whether their tap water is safe.

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“We anticipate that the requirements placed upon water utility operators — regarding transparency as well as providing accurate information to the population — to be reinforced in the framework of the updated regulation,” said the letter, dated Nov. 29 and signed by Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette and Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest.

Quebec previously announced plans to stop using a testing method that required cities to flush taps in homes for five minutes, prior to taking a sample. Several engineering experts have criticized this method since it flushes out water that has been sitting in pipes for extended periods of time and is more likely to contain higher lead levels than the water that flows immediately from municipal water mains.

Premier François Legault said in October that he learned Quebec was requiring cities to use the five-minute flush testing method after reading a joint report by Global News and Le Devoir about the issue.

The province is also expected to finalize new regulations in 2020, adopting a new standard, recommended by Health Canada, that would lower the maximum acceptable level of lead in tap water from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to five ppb. Charette and Laforest also told the mayors in their letter that the cities could seek funding for work needed to remove lead pipes from existing provincial infrastructure programs.

with files from Rose De Souza, Noel Harper, Jo Horwood, Christian Kindrachuk, Andrea Wong, Alannah Page, Mount Royal University. And Mike De Souza, Heather Yourex-West, Blake Lough, Jonathan Guignard, Roberta Bell, Global News

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See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here:

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