Turn­ing off the tap at An­caster’s arte­sian well

Ar­senic lev­els in wa­ter at the iconic spring are what they have al­ways been, but a new stan­dard may cause the con­ser­va­tion author­ity to shut it down

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JON WELLS

IT FLOWS ETER­NALLY LIKE MAGIC,

clear and cold, at­tract­ing peo­ple from far and wide to bot­tle it for free.

Na­ture cre­ated the arte­sian welloff Sul­phur Springs Road, just south of Gov­er­nor’s Road in An­caster, where sub­ter­ranean wa­ter un­der pres­sure cour­ses from two taps day and night, year-round, without the aid of a pump.

But it re­quired hu­man hands to ac­cess it in the 1960s, when 10 wells were dug; the one in op­er­a­tion plunges 72 me­tres.

That means the tap can be turned off. And that’s what Hamil­ton Con­ser­va­tion Author­ity staff has rec­om­mended the HCA board do this fall, when it votes on clos­ing the well.

The rea­son is Hamil­ton’s pub­lic health de­part­ment told the HCA that lev­els of ar­senic in the well wa­ter are nearly dou­ble the new On­tario drink­ing wa­ter stan­dard, which is the same stan­dard in the United States and rec­om­mended by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

But that is not quite the end of the story, be­cause those who use it are pas­sion­ate about their well wa­ter, be­lieve it is healthy, and love the chlo­rine­and flu­o­ride-free taste.

And they cor­rectly point out that the ar­senic level in the wa­ter is the same as it has al­ways been.

ON A COOL and mostly rainy day last week, about a dozen peo­ple came by in just over an hour, fill­ing jugs with wa­ter next to a newly posted sign warn­ing of ar­senic lev­els (and an ex­ist­ing sign warn­ing of sodium lev­els).

Anna and Adam Mazanek and three-year old daugh­ter Veronica drove from Mis­sis­sauga, as they have for a year af­ter find­ing the spring on­line.

Bernard Habin­ski, who lives on the Moun­tain, wore rub­ber shoes for the task and loaded his back seat and trunk with con­tain­ers. “I love this wa­ter,” he said. No one is go­ing to tell Habin­ski it’s bad for him. He’s been drink­ing it for about two decades. And he turns 90 next month.

A group called Save Our Spring re­cently formed to op­pose the clo­sure.

The sit­u­a­tion raises ques­tions about risk as­sess­ment and choice.

Wa­ter is an emo­tional and of­ten po­lit­i­cally-charged is­sue. It makes up about 60 per cent of the hu­man body, and drink­ing wa­ter is a rare com­mod­ity: nearly 70 per cent of the planet is cov­ered by wa­ter but only 2.5 per cent is fresh wa­ter, and just one per cent of that is eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to drink.

The An­caster Sul­phur Springs wells were first tapped by set­tlers in the 1850s, and in the mid-1960s to 1970s were the pri­mary drink­ing wa­ter source for about 10,000 res­i­dents be­fore the area was con­nected to the mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sup­ply tak­ing its wa­ter from Lake On­tario.

The HCA has been re­spon­si­ble for the wells since as­sum­ing own­er­ship in the late 1990s.

The taps at the site have re­mained flow­ing 24/7 ever since, apart from a brief shut­down in 2000 due to el­e­vated bac­te­ria lev­els, caused by the tap sys­tem back then, not the wa­ter source.

Tests over the years have shown con­sis­tent lev­els of ar­senic, which is a car­cino­gen, mean­ing it can lead to can­cer, but ar­senic is also found in food, soil, air — and some brands of bot­tled wa­ter.

In the case of arte­sian well wa­ter, ar­senic is a nat­u­rally-oc­cur­ring el­e­ment in its less harm­ful or­ganic form, not the far more dan­ger­ous inor­ganic ver­sion.

Lev­els have al­ways been be­tween 1722 parts per bil­lion (ppb), which was never con­sid­ered a health haz­ard be­cause On­tario’s for­mer drink­ing wa­ter stan­dard was 25 ppb.

But in 2001 the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency an­nounced a limit for ar­senic in drink­ing wa­ter of 10 ppb.

Early last year, Hamil­ton’s pub­lic health de­part­ment told the HCA that as of Jan. 1, 2018, On­tario would en­force the higher stan­dard.

The HCA could treat the wa­ter to re­move ar­senic but it would be ex­pen­sive. Years ago staff es­ti­mated the cost could be more than $500,000 ini­tially and per­haps $35,000 an­nu­ally.

Staff in­stead rec­om­mends turn­ing off the tap for good.

Lisa Burn­side, chief ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cer at the con­ser­va­tion author­ity, said that in the­ory af­ter shut­ting the source and lock­ing it, the tap could be turned on again in the fu­ture if the rules changed.

Or they could de­com­mis­sion the well en­tirely, which would also be costly.

“The board has no ap­petite for break­ing reg­u­la­tions,” she said. “It is an awk­ward sit­u­a­tion … ul­ti­mately the taps were left open for his­tor­i­cal and legacy pur­poses. (The HCA) doesn’t pro­vide drink­ing wa­ter; it’s not part of our pub­lic man­date.”

Christopher McLeod, who lives near Copetown and is a lead­ing voice in the Save Our Spring group, says that in prac­tice the HCA has made it part of their man­date.

“I’ve been get­ting my wa­ter there for 10 years, so (the HCA) has been in the busi­ness a long time.”

McLeod’s ru­ral home is not con­nected to the mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sys­tem. His fam­ily has a shal­low well and fil­tra­tion sys­tem, but the wa­ter doesn’t taste nearly as good as the An­caster well and he be­lieves it is not as healthy.

The SOS group held a pub­lic meet­ing two weeks ago, at­tended by HCA staff, and nearly 100 peo­ple at­tended. The next meet­ing is July 26 at 7 p.m. at Copetown Com­mu­nity Cen­tre. (For more about the group go to saveour­spring.ca).

McLeod says they would like to part­ner with the HCA to col­lect data on how many peo­ple use it.

“That would help tell a bet­ter story about why we need to leave it open.”

He says there is no ev­i­dence the wa­ter has harmed any­one, and can­cer rates in the An­caster area have his­tor­i­cally been low.

Risk is an in­ex­act science, which is part of the rea­son An­caster Coun. Lloyd Fer­gu­son sup­ports keep­ing the well open.

He is one of 11 mem­bers on the HCA board that will vote on the is­sue.

“We all take risks in life and peo­ple should be free to make their own de­ci­sions,” he said. “We put warn­ings on ci­garette pack­ages, but we still let peo­ple buy them … This is arte­sian wa­ter, it’s how the Lord made it, and it’s very pop­u­lar. I just don’t want us to over­re­act (by clos­ing it).”

A warn­ing posted at the well says “short-term ex­po­sure to very high lev­els of ar­senic” can make you sick, and long-term can cause can­cer. An HCA re­port de­scribes the risk like this: “Sta­tis­tics in­di­cate that in a com­mu­nity of 385,000 peo­ple who have been drink­ing one-and-a-half litres of wa­ter with .010 mg/L (10 ppb) ar­senic ev­ery day for 70 years, that there will be one ad­di­tional can­cer due to ar­senic.”

Fer­gu­son said ar­senic is not on the radar when it comes to test­ing pri­vate ru­ral wells, which are tested for such things as E. coli bac­te­ria, but not ar­senic.

He suc­ceeded in push­ing the HCA to hold off on the vote un­til Novem­ber. In the mean­time he’s en­cour­ag­ing res­i­dents to send him in­for­ma­tion to help con­vince the board to vote against clo­sure, and per­haps sway the po­si­tion of El­iz­a­beth Richard­son, Hamil­ton’s med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health.

(One res­i­dent emailed him a 2002 ar­ti­cle from the U.S. Na­tional Cen­ter for Biotech­nol­ogy In­for­ma­tion that said ex­treme lev­els of ar­senic in drink­ing wa­ter may cause a va­ri­ety of can­cers but there is “lit­tle, if any, ev­i­dence of detri­men­tal health ef­fects from inor­ganic ar­senic in drink­ing wa­ter” even at 50 ppb, or five times the cur­rent stan­dard.)

“Un­less we get em­pir­i­cal data, the board won’t have the stom­ach to leave it open,” Fer­gu­son said, con­ced­ing that li­a­bil­ity fears might be the de­cid­ing fac­tor no mat­ter what data is out there.

One sug­ges­tion from the SOS group is re­clas­si­fy­ing the well from a drink­ing wa­ter source to a “min­eral source” that peo­ple can bot­tle at their own risk as they al­ways have.

A less-ro­bust spring nearby, that has a strong sul­phur smell, is owned by the city and is left open be­cause it is not con­sid­ered drink­ing wa­ter (even though some peo­ple drink from it, de­spite the odour.)

Wilf Ru­land, a pro­fes­sional geo­sci­en­tist who lives just down the road from the well, says ar­senic is a real is­sue, and he won­ders if there is a way to blend wa­ter from an­other of the wells to lower the ar­senic lev­els.

Joanne Tur­nell of SOS would like to see HCA con­sider invit­ing a non-profit group to take over re­spon­si­bil­ity for the well, with the un­der­stand­ing that it re­mains free for pub­lic use.

The HCA con­sid­ered the well a po­ten­tial money maker 20 years ago, when it ex­plored part­ner­ing with a pri­vate com­pany to bot­tle and sell the wa­ter. The idea alarmed en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists at the time, who said the HCA was try­ing to cash-in on “blue gold,” but the plan never came to fruition.

With the well clo­sure loom­ing, ru­ral res­i­dents like Nicholas Grif­fin are ready to load up.

He has en­joyed spring wa­ter for 40 years but one by one they have been closed in the area.

His pri­vate well wa­ter is “off the charts for sul­phur, iron and hard­ness” and he said bot­tled wa­ter is a des­per­ate last re­sort, given en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts as­so­ci­ated with it.

“I’ll be fill­ing ev­ery avail­able con­tainer be­fore this one closes.”

Ju­lia Kollek, who lives in down­town Hamil­ton, dropped by last week to fill con­tain­ers like she has been do­ing for 10 years.

Mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter drawn from the lake presents its own set of health is­sues, she said.

“This well is a hid­den gem; peo­ple go to Europe to get wa­ter like this. I drink it, cook with it. I un­der­stand the (ar­senic) con­cerns, but the ben­e­fits out­weigh the risks.”

CATHIE COW­ARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Joanne Tur­nell of Save Our Spring fills a bot­tle with wa­ter from the An­caster arte­sian well last Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

PHOTOS BY CATHIE COW­ARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Top: Bernard Habin­ski fills one of the many bot­tles the 90-year-old brings with him from his Hamil­ton Moun­tain home.

Be­low: Anna Mazanek fills one of the many bot­tles that she and her hus­band Adam bring with them from their home in Mis­sis­sauga.

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