Halifax water utility proposes new lead pipe removal program following Tainted Water investigation

Halifax water utility proposes new lead pipe removal program following Tainted Water investigation
Conducted as part of a national collaboration between universities and media outlets across Canada, including 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 timelines 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 due to 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

“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. We would totally reconsider our decision knowing they would be more participatory in the cost.”

In a report headed to the utility’s board of commissioners on Thursday, water quality manager for Halifax Water, Wendy Krkosek, lays 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.

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“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.

In response to the public concern after the Tainted Water story was published, Halifax Water is seeking approval from its board of commissioners to apply to the provincial utility and review board for permission to pay for the lead service line replacements.

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 .

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Health Canada reduced its guideline for the maximum allowable level of lead in drinking water from 10 parts per billion to 5 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.”

Prevost 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.
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