Hal­i­fax util­ity urges lead wa­ter pipe re­place­ment

Sparked by con­cern raised by Star se­ries, $38M plan would af­fect thou­sands of ser­vice lines

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - ROBERT CRIBB IN­VES­TIGA­TIVE RE­PORTER ZANE WOOD­FORD STAR HAL­I­FAX

Hal­i­fax’s wa­ter util­ity is propos­ing spending mil­lions to speed up the re­place­ment of its cus­tomers’ lead ser­vice lines, cit­ing Star Hal­i­fax and Global News’ Tainted Wa­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion as a cat­a­lyst for ac­tion.

Con­ducted as part of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween uni­ver­si­ties and me­dia out­lets across Canada, in­clud­ing the Univer­sity of King’s Col­lege and Con­cor­dia Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed that nearly a third of tap wa­ter tests con­ducted by Hal­i­fax Wa­ter since 2012 have ex­ceeded the na­tional guide­line for lead.

Since the Tainted Wa­ter sto­ries were pub­lished ear­lier this month, calls to Hal­i­fax Wa­ter from home­own­ers con­cerned about lead pipes sky­rock­eted from two to 100 per day and traf­fic to the util­ity’s

web­site spiked more than 200 per cent. The util­ity will ask its board on Thurs­day to ap­prove a re­quest for more money to speed up the time­line for full re­place­ment of un­der­ground pipes that de­liver drink­ing wa­ter from wa­ter mains to homes.

The util­ity has been proac­tive in tack­ling the is­sue, pro­vid­ing a 25 per cent re­bate to cus­tomers who re­place their lead ser­vice lines — but up­take on the pro­gram has been slow, with many cus­tomers choos­ing not to re­place their lead pipes be­cause of cost, which can top $10,000 be­fore the re­bate.

If the util­ity’s new plan is ap­proved, it will spend $10.5 mil­lion more on re­plac­ing lead ser­vice lines on home­own­ers’ prop­erty — po­ten­tially in­creas­ing their wa­ter rates in the short term. But that ex­tra spending will save Hal­i­fax Wa­ter money in the long term be­cause it will have more con­trol over when it re­places lead ser­vice lines on pub­lic prop­erty, avoid­ing costly paving work.

Sheila Blair-Reid wanted to get the lead pipes re­moved from her south-end Hal­i­fax home last year. Then she got the $15,000 cost es­ti­mate for the re­moval thanks to front stone steps that would have to be lifted and put back in place.

“We were frus­trated. Given the taxes we pay, we re­ally felt Hal­i­fax Wa­ter should be tak­ing it on,” she said.

She says she’s “thrilled” by the util­ity’s new will­ing­ness to fund re­moval of the pipes.

“It’s fan­tas­tic. We shouldn’t be drink­ing lead.”

In a re­port headed to the util­ity’s board of com­mis­sion­ers on Thurs­day, wa­ter qual­ity man­ager for Hal­i­fax Wa­ter, Wendy Krkosek, laid out a plan to re­place ev­ery one of the es­ti­mated 2,000 pub­lic and 3,500 pri­vate lead ser­vice lines in the city by 2039 at a to­tal cost of about $38.5 mil­lion.

That’s 24 years ear­lier than orig­i­nally pro­jected.

“Cus­tomer re­sponse to re­cent me­dia at­ten­tion to lead in drink­ing wa­ter as a pub­lic health is­sue shows the pub­lic’s con­cern over this is­sue and the need for util­ity ac­tion to re­move bar­ri­ers to pri­vate up­take of (lead ser­vice line re­newal),” Krkosek writes in the re­port.

Michèle Prévost, a Polytech­nique Mon­tréal en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing in drink­ing wa­ter lead lev­els, wel­comed Hal­i­fax Wa­ter’s move.

“This is re­ally great. I hope it’s con­ta­gious across Canada,” she said.

The Tainted Wa­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion found a third of re­li­able lead test re­sults across the coun­try since 2014 ex­ceeded the fed­eral lead guide­line amid a patch­work of test­ing meth­ods and stan­dards.

Fol­low­ing pub­li­ca­tion of sto­ries in Que­bec last month, Mon­treal an­nounced it would force home­own­ers with lead pipes to re­move them.

For those that can’t af­ford the re­moval, the city will foot the bill — gen­er­ally be­tween $2,000 and $8,000 — and in­voice home­own­ers for the cost over 15 years.

Hal­i­fax Wa­ter is opt­ing to sim­ply pay for the work, rather than forc­ing home­own­ers to re­place pipes, cit­ing is­sues with en­force­ment and cus­tomers’ abil­ity to pay.

While mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties can take im­me­di­ate steps to re­duce lead lev­els, such as pro­vid­ing fil­ters to home­own­ers and ap­ply­ing chem­i­cals to the wa­ter sys­tem to re­duce cor­ro­sion, re­mov­ing lead is the only long-term, re­li­able so­lu­tion, Prévost said.

Health Canada re­duced its guide­line for the max­i­mum al­low­able level of lead in drink­ing wa­ter from 10 parts per bil­lion to five parts per bil­lion ear­lier this year.

“The only way to get down to the num­bers that Health Canada is guid­ing us to is to re­move the pipes,” Prévost said. “We have to get it done.”

Prévost said com­plete re­place­ment of lead pipes isn’t only pos­i­tive for pub­lic health rea­sons. It is also an equity is­sue since older in­ner-city ar­eas in many mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have more lower-in­come home­own­ers who are un­able to af­ford the cost of lead pipe re­place­ments.

ZANE WOOD­FORD STAR HAL­I­FAX

If Hal­i­fax Wa­ter’s plan is ap­proved, it will spend $10.5 mil­lion more on re­plac­ing lead ser­vice lines on home­own­ers’ prop­erty.

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