Experts on the dangers of lead and water say a new program replacing lead pipes on private property free of charge indicates Halifax is leading the way on making drinking water safer.
On Thursday, the Nova Scotia’s Utility and Review Board (UARB) ruled there was “no opposition” to Halifax Water paying 100 per cent of the cost of replacing lead service lines (LSL) on both public property and residential homes.
“It would have been very easy for them to not do this and say, ‘well let’s just let some other city do this,'” said Graham Gagnon of Dalhousie University’s Centre for Water Resource Studies.
“We are in a great position…it makes me proud to be a Haligonian.”
Gagnon’s colleague, post-doctoral researcher Benjamin Trueman said the decision to give the program the green light is “transformational.”
“The expense of replacing lead pipes has been a significant barrier for homeowners for a long time,” he told Global News. “This is really getting to the root of the problem in a way that corrosion control isn’t.”
Halifax Water’s $14-million plan was announced in 2019 after an investigation led by Global News and the Star Halifax published a disturbing history of failed lead tests from Halifax Water, due to lingering lead service lines in aging public and residential infrastructure.
There are roughly 3,500 private and 2,500 public lead service lines to replace at a total cost of $38.5 million.
That same investigation, cited by the utility as a catalyst for its proposal, also revealed nearly a quarter of a million homes on private wells in the province are at risk of lead contamination.
Last November, the Halifax Water board unanimously supported a motion to try and complete LSL replacement on homes within its boundaries by “2039 or sooner” over concerns posed by the serious public health risk tied to lead exposure.
Lead is a neurotoxin associated with increased incidence of high blood pressure, renal dysfunction, decreased cognitive performance and other complications. It’s particularly dangerous for children, linked to ADHD, lowered IQ and developmental disorders.
It can leach into tap water from a variety of sources, including the underground lead pipes that link homes to city water mains or wells, or from lead solder or some plumbing fixtures that contain traces of it inside homes.
But that changes once the LSL is replaced, said Gagnon.
“Once you remove the lead pipe, the amount of lead in your drinking water goes down substantially, so for any homeowner, they should prioritize this as an action for their family’s well-being.”
In October 2019, a national investigation called ‘Tainted Water’ revealed hundreds of thousands of Canadians have been unwittingly exposed to lead in their drinking water — many in dangerous concentrations exceeding Health Canada’s guideline.
The project was a collaboration between 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 credited that reporting directly in its proposal to replace lead pipes for free. In a report, it said the series prompted 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.
The news of the improved benefit was welcomed by Robie Street homeowner Steve Mackay, who has been unable to replace the lead pipes in his home due to the prohibitive cost — up to $10,000 in some cases. Without the replacement pipes, Mackay has been using a filtration system in the meantime to keep the lead out.
“I think this great news and I’d certainly be interested in having the lead pipes connecting to our home replaced,” he told Global News. “I heard about this program being in the works and I’m glad that it’s been approved.”
There’s no direct precedent for a program like this — other municipalities in Canada have rebate programs, or partial or conditional payment options. Halifax Water will be the first utility to pay for public and private LSL replacements, free of charge, no questions asked.
Previously, Halifax Water has only been able to offer a 25 per cent rebate on the cost of replacements, up to a maximum of $2,500. That program will still be used if customers don’t qualify for full reimbursement but want to replace their lead pipes.
The new policy of replacing lead lines for free is set to go into effect immediately, and Halifax Water will begin with “high-risk households” first — those with pregnant or breastfeeding women and young children. Other homes will be timed with street renewal projects, in order to save on costs.
“It’s long been known that lead is a health issue and we want to get the lead out of the system,” said utility spokesperson James Campbell. “If we can help our customers do that at our cost and move that program along faster, all the better.
Halifax Water estimates the enhanced program will result in complete lead pipe replacement 24 years earlier than if it had continued the current rebate regime. Homeowners can find out whether their property is likely to have lead pipes via the utility’s website, and are encouraged to call and put their names on the replacement list.
In addition to the lead pipe replacement approval, the NSUARB approved Halifax Water’s recommendation to not increase water rates during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 fiscal years and no increase in overall wastewater rates in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
“Halifax Water’s initial request to increase rates was filed prior to the pandemic,” said Halifax Water General Manager Catherine O’Toole in a statement.
“Recognizing many customers were concerned about the future and their ability to pay bills, a longer-term strategy was developed that allowed Halifax Water to reduce its requested rate increases, while continuing to maintain high quality, reliable and affordable service.”