Montreal·CBC Investigates

Pie-IX water main break: Critics slam Montreal for slow response time

A CBC Montreal investigation found holes in the city's emergency response plan for major water main breaks, however Mayor Denis Coderre says "there is a change of culture in the best practice."

CBC Montreal investigation finds lack of equipment, staff led to long delays in capping Pie-IX Blvd. leak

A water main break on Pie-IX Boulevard in 2015 flooded seven city blocks in the St. Michel district. (CBC)

The way Montreal handles large water main breaks is under scrutiny after a CBC Montreal investigation showed holes in the city's emergency response plan.

Last October, a monstrous break on a 1.2-metre (48-inch) pipe in the St-Michel district on the corner of Pie-IX Boulevard at Villeray Street flooded seven city blocks. 

It took crews five hours to shut the water off, in part because the borough didn't have the equipment to close the valve and because the city's blue-collar workers who were called in to help don't work on Fridays – the day the flood happened.

Not an isolated case

Projet Montréal Leader Luc Ferrandez says the delay in the Pie-IX Boulevard incident isn't an isolated case. 

RAW: Plateau driver tries to escape slush

Montreal

6 years agoVideo
1:05
A water main break in the Plateau had some residents struggling to free themselves of the ice and slush. 1:05

In January 2015, an early-morning water main break on the Plateau near the intersection of St-Joseph Boulevard and Berri Street encased the neighbourhood in ice.

It took days to chip away the ice, and hundreds of cars had to be removed by tow trucks.

"The damage was amazing," said Ferrandez.

Engineers on call after hours

Boroughs have their own staff to repair smaller breaks.  

However, if the break happens on a main water line, they must co-ordinate repairs with the central city engineer, who tells them what valves to shut off.  

Plateau Mont-Royal borough Mayor Luc Ferrandez says there's too much improvisation when it comes to handling major water main breaks in Montreal. (CBC)

If the break occurs after regular business hours or on the weekend, that person is only on call.

Ferrandez says the blueprints and files the on-call engineers have to access aren't always accessible from home.

"So they have to take their car, come downtown and try to open the file and then give the interruption plan," said Ferrandez.

"During this time, you have a 20-inch, or 30-inch or 48-inch pipe just throwing water in the district."

Ferrandez said there's no excuse for so much confusion and what he sees as improvisation.

"First, how do you interrupt the system, and who is responsible to give you the plan to interrupt it?" asked Ferrandez. "Does this person have the right tools to give you this information at the precise time you need it?"

"Second, who has the tools and the knowledge to do the interruption?"

Lack of equipment?

In the case of the break on Pie-IX Boulevard last October, the Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension borough didn't have the equipment nor the expertise it needed to shut off the valve and stop the water.

In order to close large valves, crews use specialized equipment. Typically, it's a mechanized, large metal bar that clamps onto the valve and does the necessary turns to shut it.

The equipment used that day is located at the water department's main headquarters in the Sud-Ouest borough. But, as the Pie-IX break showed, it's not always accessible.

On that particular Friday, the blue-collar workers trained to operate it weren't working. They had to be called in.

A handful of boroughs have their own equipment, including Saint-Laurent.

Saint-Laurent Mayor Alan DeSousa said his borough bought two machines. One is mounted on a pick-up truck and cost about $27,000. The other, which is portable, cost $35,000.

"These are not big ticket items," said DeSousa.

As one of the largest boroughs on the island of Montreal, DeSousa said it only made sense for Saint-Laurent to purchase its own machines.

Cost-benefit analysis

DeSousa remembers another huge break on Pie-IX Boulevard in 2002, when he was the city's executive committee member responsible for water.

2002 water main break on Pie-IX Blvd.

5 years agoVideo
0:43
A major water main break in 2002 sent 10-million gallons of water spewing into the St-Michel neighbourhood. 0:43

The pipe was nearly two metres (six feet) in diameter and when it broke, it sent 10 million gallons of water flooding into the area. 

It cost about half a million dollars to repair the pipe, but the claims exceeded $12 million, DeSousa recalls.

This past year's break on Pie-IX resulted in more than 200 claims, making up about a third of all water-damage claims in 2015.

Breaks like that are rare. But DeSousa says it might be useful for the city to do a cost-benefit analysis of making sure staff are available around the clock every day – and not just on call.

"Depending on the size of the pipe and the state of the pipe, the amount of claims can be considerable," said DeSousa.

The mayor of Anjou, Luis Miranda, echoes DeSousa's concerns.

When he heard the water department's blue-collar workers didn't work Fridays, he was stunned.

"I can't understand (why) there isn't someone on full time," said Miranda, who points out that the major water system is the city's responsibility.

"I would have thought they'd have a 24-hour service."

Coderre insists work 'culture' has changed

CBC's requests for interviews with the city were refused because an investigation is still underway into what happened.
The city is also still settling claims.

But Mayor Denis Coderre was asked about the city's response to the Pie-IX water main break Wednesday in Quebec City.

He said the response was delayed, in part, because it took time to locate the leak.

Coderre says the city is constantly looking to see if changes or improvements need to be made to the emergency response plan.

"It's an ongoing issue. We have to make sure we have the best practice every time," said Coderre. "As you may notice now, we're getting rid of all those silos. There is a change of culture in the best practice."

In the past, Coderre said different departments wouldn't communicate with one another. He says that's no longer the case.

Plateau residents wake up to neighbourhood encased in ice in January 2015:

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      About the Author

      Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Contact her via our confidential tipline: 514-597-5155 or on email at montrealinvestigates@cbc.ca.

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