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Tenants sue former landlords for allegedly putting irrigation water into their drinking source

A couple from southern Alberta is suing their former landlords for allegedly contaminating their drinking water with irrigation water, making them sick. The landlords deny all allegations and say they did all they could to provide clean drinking water.

But Steven and Diane Hayes’ former landlords deny all allegations, according to their statement of defence

Diane Hayes, 57, & Steven Hayes, 61, allege they consumed contaminated drinking water for years and they are now suing their former landlords, who deny allegations. (Colleen Underwood)

When Steven and Diane Hayes look back at the eight years they spent questioning the quality of their drinking water, battling bouts of diarrhea and other stomach troubles, they tell CBC News they still have a hard time believing the people they called friends and whom they trusted — their landlords — were responsible. It's an accusation the Hayes are now trying to prove in a civil lawsuit.

The Hayes are suing their former landlords, Peter and Margaret Hansen, for failing to make sure they provided safe drinking water, by not testing the water nor cleaning the cistern that stored their water, regularly.

But on top of that, in their Statement of Claim, the Hayes allege their landlord would fill their cistern with irrigation water without the Hayes knowledge or consent — a cistern that both families drew from for drinking water.

The Hayes tell CBC News that they now believe it was a way for their landlords to save money.

In their statement of defence the Hansens deny all of the Hayes' allegations. The Hansens declined to speak to CBC directly or through their lawyer.

"It was so unbelievable in thinking that they were doing this, it was hard, it's still to this day hard to absorb because of the fact, why, the question was why would you do that, we'll never get that answer," said Steven Hayes, 61, sitting in his living room next to his wife Diane.

Steven & Diane Hayes lived in this mobile home, on their landlords farm in the County of Newell. (Submitted by Steven Hayes)

Pattern of problems

The Hayes now live in a trailer court in the Village of Duchess, not far from where they used to live on the Hansens' treed farmyard in the County of Newell.

In his sworn affidavit, Steven Hayes details the couple's water problems after moving onto the Hansens' property in July 2010.

It says the Hayes first noticed their water was cloudy or murky in August 2010.

It says the Hayes brought a glass of the murky water to their landlords to show them, but in response the Hansens said they were not having the same problem.

Then the affidavit says the cloudy water soon cleared up. 

The court document also says the Hayes' water became visibly brown again the following month, that they told the Hansens, and the Hansens "brushed it off."

It also says the water, once again, soon cleared up. 

The Hayes tell CBC News their water would get murky roughly every August. 

We kind of basically passed it off as maybe that is well water … we didn't know everything what a cistern was, it was all new to us,- Steven Hayes

 

"We kind of basically passed it off as maybe that is well water, maybe it is like that, not understanding , because we knew we had to pay half the water bill, but, we didn't know everything what a cistern was, it was all new to us," said Steven Hayes.

"We were very naive, and we really trusted her, they were an older couple, we respected them, we tried to help them in any way we could," said Diane Hayes, 57.

In her sworn affidavit, Margaret Hansen says neither she, nor her husband Peter ever had a problem with the water from the cistern.

And in their statement of defence the Hansens say whenever the water level diminished it would be refilled by a licensed water hauling company.

The water that flows through irrigation canal pipelines is raw water (non-treated) diverted from surface sources such as the Bow River. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Eventually, according to court documents, Margaret Hansen tested her water in April 2017 for peace of mind. She also says, in these documents, that she had some stomach issues.

The Hayes' lawyer says he has a copy of that provincial lab test  and it came back positive for coliforms — a type of bacteria that are almost everywhere including in soil, sewage and manure.

Coliform contamination

Health Canada's guidelines say drinking water should not have any bacteria in it.

The Hayes then tell CBC News that the Hansens told them to test their water.  The Hayes say they did and according to court documents, the tests came back negative.

Then the Hayes tested the cistern. Documented results confirm the water in the cistern was positive for coliforms. 

The Hayes tell CBC News they continued to test with mostly negative results.

Then In September 2017, court documents show the water in the cistern tested positive for both coliforms and E. coli.

Steven Hayes believes irrigation water, as seen here, was being mixed in with his drinking water for years. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

According to health experts, the presence of E. coli means  the water has likely been contaminated by sewage or manure. 

The Hayes tells CBC News at first they didn't know what was causing the contamination and murky water. They say they thought it could have been from contamination in the lines, the pump, or the cistern.

But even after the cistern was cleaned in September 2017, more testing showed the bacteria had returned, court documents said.

So the Hayes tell CBC News that they started to wonder if a strange yet concerning comment by their landlord Peter Hansen was true.

In his affidavit Steven Hayes says while he was helping Peter Hansen with the batteries on the low-level alarm on the cistern in 2015,  Hansen said his wife didn't like it when he put irrigation water into the cistern.

"I was in shock, I'm still in shock, I just couldn't absorb it," Steven told CBC News.

In court documents, Margaret Hansen says she used to put irrigation water into their previous cistern, before the Hayes moved onto the property. But in their statement of defence the Hansens deny all allegations that they put irrigation water into the cistern used by the Hayes.

Lawsuit

The Hayes tell CBC News that they are now seeking justice and compensation by launching a civil lawsuit against the Hansens.

The Hayes' statement of claim says Diane became sick upon moving into the mobile home. Diane tells CBC News she spent a lot of time in doctors' offices trying to resolve her intestinal troubles, and eventually she was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Steven also tells CBC News that on occasion he had diarrhea but that his wife's health was much worse.

Irrigation water comes from the river, in this case the Bow River, and is diverted through a vast canal system until it's delivered to rural properties across southern Alberta between about May and October.

The water is supposed to be used to water crops, gardens and trees. But because the water is not treated, officials say it should not be consumed.

A close up of the bottom of an irrigation canal showing sediment on the rocks near Duchess, Alta. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Provincial lab tests, as part of the court documents, confirm bacteria was present, but they can't say where it came from.

In a sworn affidavit Margaret Hansen says the water samples could have been contaminated when they were collected by the Hayes.

Or within the Hayes' own plumbing system, or during the filling of the cistern by the water delivery truck.

The Hayes' lawyer says regardless of how the bacteria ended up in the water, the Hansens failed to provide clean, safe drinking water to their tenants.

"If you are not checking this stuff, you're not watching it, your water can become contaminated anyway and so any way you slice it, one way or another this water became contaminated and they were not paying attention and they let these people get sick and that's not allowed, that's not acceptable," said Mathew Farrell, legal counsel for the Hayes.

Farrell says a landlord's obligation to provide tenants with safe drinking water is set out under the Mobile Sites Tenancies Act and the potable water regulation lays out the standards.

According to guidelines by Alberta Health Services the water in cisterns should be tested twice a year, and the tank should be cleaned once a year and after every positive test for bacteria.

Farrell says Margaret Hansen says the water was not tested for years. When it was tested, Farrell says it failed on at least two occasions.

Diane Hayes says she no longer worries about the water she drinks after she and her husband Steven moved into the Village of Duchess, and are on municipal water. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

However in her affidavit, Margaret Hansen says the couple did everything in their power to ensure the water in the cistern was of sufficient quality and free from contamination.

The Hayes said they tried to remedy the problem by installing a water filtration system and buying bottled water, but they tell CBC News they kept using the tap water to brush teeth, prepare food and shower. 

How could I be so stupid and not see these signs, I don't understand myself anymore.- Steven Hayes

 

Compensation

The Hansens eventually evicted the Hayes in May 2018. In a notice to vacate letter to the Hayes, the Hansens say that renting out the property was causing them stress and they no longer wanted to do so.

The Hayes moved their mobile home into the village of Duchess shortly afterwards.

Since then Diane tells CBC News, her health has started to improve. 

But the couple say they are still upset and confused about everything that's happened.

"How could I be so stupid and not see these signs, I don't understand myself anymore," said Steven.

In the lawsuit, the Hayes are seeking about $250,000 to cover moving costs, damages, health-related costs and loss of wages because Diane Hayes was unable to work due to her adverse health.

"I want justice, I want these people put to account, I want the judge to make sure that it sets a precedent that you do not do this to people, anybody or even to your own family, the end result are people will get sick," said Steven Hayes.

None of these allegations have been proven in court.

No trial date has been set yet.

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