Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante will require households to replace lead water pipes

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante will require households to replace lead water pipes

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante is promising some bold action to tackle a drinking water crisis that is sweeping Quebec, in the wake of an investigative news report  that casts doubt about the accuracy of sampling tests of lead levels coming out of taps across the province.

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She also said that the city would accelerate its replacement of the lead-lined pipes, known as lead service lines, that connect many of these homes to the city’s main water distribution network.

The issue largely affects older homes and apartment buildings with fewer than eight dwellings. There are potentially up to 300,000 people in the city who live in these types of homes, according to the local public health agency.

Until now, the city has not been forcing local property owners to change the pipes on their property when it goes in to remove a lead service line.

But Plante said the city was poised to start unilaterally changing lead pipes on private property and billing households over 15 years. These replacements could cost several thousand dollars for each home.

Plante also promised to offer additional support to homeowners, including the launch of a new website that will allow residents to search for information about lead pipes in their neighbourhood, as well as incentives such as free water pitchers and filters for potentially affected households.

It was not immediately clear how much the plan would cost or how it would be implemented as Plante said Montreal was still working on details to resolve a problem that successive administrations at city hall have known about for more than a decade.

“I’m not in a place to say the City of Montreal hasn’t been doing their job,” Plante said. “It’s just [that] there’s a lot of houses to cover — a lot of places to cover.”

The analysis revealed high lead levels across multiple Montreal neighbourhoods and boroughs.

The investigation revealed that Quebec is requiring municipalities to use an outdated testing method that requires them to flush taps for five minutes prior to taking water samples. This method usually lowers the amount of lead detected since it won’t capture lead contamination in water that has been stagnant in pipes for an extended period of time.

As a result, the testing method fails to identify a household’s maximum exposure to lead.

The province is also slated to update its regulations before March 2020.

But despite using the outdated testing method, Montreal is still obtaining high lead levels. The average in its flushed tests measured 5.3 parts per billion (ppb) in 2018, according to municipal data released through freedom of information legislation. Earlier this year, Health Canada revised the federal government’s recommended limit of lead in drinking water, lowering it from 10 to five ppb.

Overall, in Montreal, the investigation reviewed thousands of pages of internal documents and about 51,000 drinking water sampling results from 25,000 Montreal households between 2004 and 2018. 

In addition, the city’s health authority estimated that more than 300,000 people are delivered water through lead service lines and may be exposed to elevated lead levels.

Surveys conducted by journalists indicated that city technicians were providing misleading statements to the public about dangerous levels of lead in tap water, informing residents that their water was safe, even though independent lab tests commissioned by the media partners had revealed more alarming results in 13 out of 23 households.

Over 15 years, lead test results in Montreal, using the method that requires flushing the taps, revealed that there were more than 9,000 exceedances, including lead levels of 72 ppb in a 1928 two-storey row house in Ahuntsic, 60 ppb in a classic wartime home in Rosemont and 54 ppb in a mid-century bungalow in Nouveau-Bordeaux — all well above the current federal guideline.
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