Council bails on its goal to remove toxic and dangerous plumbing in five years

City Hall | Paul Dechene | June 10, 2021

At its May 26 meeting, council voted unanimously in favour of implementing an accelerated lead service connection removal program.

Don’t get too excited.

While the original plan aimed to get rid of all the city’s lead connectors by 2050, the accelerated program only cuts that timeline roughly in half by setting a completion date of 2036.

That’s 15 years. Which is better. But still not awesome.

Lead is a pernicious neurotoxin. It accumulates in the body over time and can lead to brain damage, especially in children. It also causes a host of other health problems like kidney damage, miscarriages and, in men, sexual dysfunction.

Alarmingly, there’s a lot of lead plumbing around Regina.

According to the city’s records, there are approximately 3,600 lead service connections owned by the city that connect municipal water mains to residences. On top of that, city administration estimates there are 7,000 to 8,000 lead service connectors on the private side of the property line.

The city-owned connections are concentrated mainly in the core of the city, with Cathedral having the largest number: a staggering 21.2% — more than one in five — taps pour out water that’s passed through a city-owned lead service connection.

The other impacted neighbourhoods are Heritage (20.5%), Old Lakeview (16.9 %), North Central (13.2%), Al Ritchie (10.4%), McNab (9%), Eastview (7.3%), Centre Square (6.5%) the Warehouse District (5.2%), Lakeview (4.6%), Old Lakeview (4.6%), Downtown (4.6%), Rosemont/Mount Royal (1.6%), Ross Industrial (1.2%) and Northeast (where there is a single lead service connection).

In 2019, Health Canada updated their drinking water quality guidelines. Among the changes they made, they reduced the maximum acceptable concentration of lead in drinking water from 0.010 mg/L to 0.005 mg/L. And while that’s a strict bar to hit, even miniscule amounts of lead become horribly poisonous over time and as such it’s widely understood that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.

This is of course alarming to those who’ve taken advantage of the free lead testing offered by the city and discovered their drinking water is dangerously contaminated.

That happened to Kathy Donovan, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of the Cathedral Area Community Association.[1]

“My home tested at 0.111 mg/L which is the equivalent of 111 ppb [parts per billion],” said Donovan. “This is 22 times the maximum allowed limit. It is greater than the 104 ppb result that first raised the alarm during Flint, Michigan’s water crisis.”

Donovan pointed to recent landmark research coordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism. The IIJ investigation, Tainted H2O, was done in partnership with nine universities and media outlets across Canada, including the Leader Post, Global News Regina and the University of Regina School of Journalism. It found alarmingly high lead levels in taps across Canada, with Saskatchewan having some of the highest lead levels in the country.

Regina homes with lead service connections that have been tested were discovered to compare very unfavourably with Flint, Michigan. After drawing four litres from a tap, Regina homes averaged lead levels of about 26 ppb while Flint in 2015 was averaging only 10 ppb.

It was findings like these that inspired council in 2019 to ask administration for a report on the feasibility of replacing all lead service connections by 2025. Then-mayor Michael Fougere stated in media reports at the time that he was committed getting the lead service connections removed as quickly as possible.

But statements like that were made immediately after Tainted H2O was released. A couple years have passed, we have a new council and that sense of urgency seems to have blunted.

Administration offered two main reasons for recommending a lead removal timetable three times longer than the one council wanted in 2019.

First, there’s the cost. Administration noted that with a longer time frame, it’s able to coordinate the removal of lead lines with maintenance on aging roads. This helps reduce the price tag, limits the need to dig up relatively newer roads and mitigates traffic impacts. In the end, to pay for a 15-year lead removal program, the city will only need a three per cent increase on utility bills in 2022, thereby boosting utility rates by only $3.16 a month per resident.

Compare that to a 10-year program, which would require two per cent increases in 2022 and 2023, and would boost rates by $6.40.

A five-year program, meanwhile, would require three per cent increases in 2022, 2023 and a one per cent increase in 2024 and 2025, and boost utility bills by $14.26.

This was convincing for Councillor Bob Hawkins.

“I’m a little concerned about the burden [a shorter time frame] would impose on the taxpayer,” he said when closing discussion of the program at Operations Committee. “This is something you have to look at from a whole city point of view. It’s really three wards — one, two and three, mine being two — that would benefit most, and yet we’re asking for the whole city to pay for this. And I think we have to keep that in mind before we impose an additional burden on the city.”

The second reason administration opted for a 15-year lead removal timeframe is their lead filtration program. Through this, any resident with a city-side lead service connection or with contaminated-due-to-lead plumbing on the residential side can ask for a free lead filter system from the city, or a $100 rebate towards a system they purchase themselves.

As of this year’s budget, residents with contaminated water can get filters from the city annually. [2]

Unfortunately, administration reports that uptake on this program has been very sluggish. Though there are estimated to be more than 7,000 households with lead service connections, in 2020 only 345 took filters from the city and 64 opted for rebates.

Donovan suggested there may be reasons the program is not popular. In her experience, getting a filter from the city wasn’t easy and the filter system she was provided broke. Twice. [3]

She also said the city failed to communicate the significance of the results of her lead test. She knew her levels were high but it wasn’t until she was researching the subject in advance of speaking at council that she realized how dangerous the lead in her drinking water could be.

Councillor Dan LeBlanc (Ward 6), however, argued that by handing out filters so that the city can delay removing lead connections abdicates a core municipal responsibility: keeping the public safe from hazards.

“If we had an unsafe road, we wouldn’t just suggest people get safer vehicles to drive on it. We’d fix the road,” he said. “If we had a dangerous playground, we wouldn’t just give kids helmets. We’d fix the playground.

“We have unsafe drinking water. We have to fix that lead service connection rather than just providing filtration systems.” [4]

A motion by Councillor Andrew Stevens (Ward 3) to strike a compromise and go with a 10-year lead removal program failed in a seven-to-four vote. Councillors Stevens, Cheryl Stadnichuk (Ward 1), LeBlanc and Shanon Zachidniak (Ward 8) voted in favour of the shorter program.

Councillors Lori Bresciani (Ward 4), John Findura (Ward 5), Hawkins, Jason Mancinelli (Ward 9), Landon Mohl (Ward 10), Terina Shaw (Ward 7) and Mayor Sandra Masters voted to stick with the 15-year plan.

Thanks to an amendment from Councillor Stadnichuk, administration will beef up their communications program and endeavour to get 100 per cent of households with lead lines to opt-in to the filter program.

If you live in an affected area or are concerned you may have lead plumbing in your house, contact the City Of Regina at 306.777.7000 and ask to speak with someone in the lead service connection management program. They can help you get your water tested and set you up with a filter if needed. They can also put you on a list to expedite the removal of your lead service connection so that you’ll only have to wait a year or two, instead of 15.

Seriously, give the city a call.  


Notes

[1] Disclosure: I am employed by the Cathedral Area Community Association to help with their newsletter and other communications. I was not at all involved with their response to lead service connection report.

[2] The lead filter program has been in place for a few years now and until the changes to the program in this year’s budget, households were only provided one-year’s worth of filters and a filter-holding apparatus. They were expected to buy replacement filters at about $20 a pop.

[3] Speaking as a Cathedral resident who received a free, on-tap lead filter, this reporter can report that, yeah, the fucking things break. Also, even when they’re working, they’re not awesome. The water comes out as a trickle. If you want to boil pasta, you have to plan well in advance. Total pain in the ass. But hey, I just have to put up with it for another 15 years.

[4] LeBlanc also noted that the areas of the city with abundant lead service connections are also the parts of the city where we’re trying to direct residential density. Kind of hard to encourage people to move to a part of Regina if we can’t guarantee them safe drinking water. He also noted that some high-lead areas have large Indigenous and low-income populations. That their drinking water has been compromised is just one more way in which those residents are being disadvantaged.