Saskatchewan

Regina homeowners grapple with lead-tainted water

Saskatchewan homeowners are dealing with high levels of lead in their drinking water. Some contamination stems from city-owned lead service connection pipes and it's not clear when those will be replaced.

It could be 20-25 years before all lead-service connection lines are replaced in Regina

Shayna Stock lives in Regina's Heritage Neighbourhood. She had her water tested for lead levels and it measured in at three times higher than what Health Canada deems a safe amount. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Les Toews can't drink the tap water in his old Regina home because it's laced with lead. 

"It's about eight times the acceptable limit," he said. "It was much higher than I had expected." 

Earlier this year, Toews received a letter saying the city believed lead contamination could exist in his home. The city came out to the 2200 block of Montague Street in the Cathedral neighborhood and tested his water. 

The level of lead deemed appropriate by Health Canada is 0.005 mg/L., but testing results from the city showed levels in Toews' home as much higher.

The pipes inside the home had already been replaced, meaning the city-owned service connection — which connects the home to the city water main — is the culprit for the high levels of lead.

'I should have safe water'

For years Toews didn't know his family was at risk for lead exposure.

"I've been living there, raising three children, and have had no notification, protection or anything." 

There is no timeline for when the city will replace the lead service connection. The city offered Toews a free water filtration system as a temporary solution.  However, the city only covers the cost of a years' supply and his supply is about to expire. 

Toews said he's been in correspondence with his city councillor to no avail. 

How do you tell the people that are buying the house: 'Oh, by the way, your water is poison?'- Les Toews

He said he's disillusioned and wouldn't rule out joining legal action. He believes the city should at least cover the cost of filtration parts for affected people until the issue is resolved. 

"I should have safe water; I pay a rather expensive water bill," he said. ​According to Health Canada, children and pregnant women are most at risk of lead exposure. It can ​affect neurological development and behaviour in children, including reduction of IQ. It can also create increased blood pressure or kidney problems in adults

He said their old two-storey home has been perfect — albeit for the contaminated water. Now he wonders what would happen if he needed to sell. 

"How do you tell the people that are buying the house: 'Oh, by the way, your water is poison?'" 

Problem could persist for 20-25 years: city

Toews is not the only person affected by lead-contaminated water in Regina.

A collection of 2,600 tap water samples from Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw revealed that these Saskatchewan cities have some of the highest measured levels of lead-tainted water in Canada, according to an investigation led by Concordia University's Institute for Investigative Journalism.

The data was obtained through freedom of information requests by a consortium of universities and media companies, according to the Regina Leader-Post.

City data indicates there are about 3,600 connections  that need to be replaced. The city began replacing the connections in 2014. 

Prior to the development of its Lead Service Connection Replacement Program established in 2017, the city averaged 100 replacements annually. With the program, it bumped the number to 150 replacements in 2019. 

At that pace, it will take 20 to 25 years to complete all replacements, said Pat Wilson, Regina's director of waste, water and environmental services. 

The investigative report also found "some of those are comparable and in some cases higher than those found in Flint, Michigan at the height of its water crisis in 2015." 

But Wilson refuted that comparison.

Wilson said calls pertaining to lead pipe concerns flooded the city on Monday after the investigative report came out. 

However, residents like Toews and Shayna Stock remain unclear about when change will happen. 

Stock has lived in the same home in the Heritage Neighborhood for ten years. The previous owners replaced the lead pipes inside.

Earlier this year, she received a letter about lead testing. It was the first time she considered her water could be tainted.

"It was a bit eye-opening," she said. "I think we all take for granted that the water that comes out of our taps is safe to drink." 

Pat Wilson, the director of water and waste management for the City of Regina, said recommendations about the lead pipe replacement program will be put forward to the city around March 2020. (Daniella Ponticelli/CBC)

According to Wilson, only 30 per cent of people who receive letters about lead testing respond. Testing for lead is not mandatory in the province and the literature put out by the city only includes a link to the health effects of lead exposure. 

Saskatoon makes strides with replacement program

The replacement programs in Saskatoon, which also had high measures of lead in sample water, differ from Regina.

Unlike Regina, Saskatoon "does not allow partial replacement of lead service connections because of the increased risk to public health."

Saskatoon officials said the city is on track to having all lead service connections replaced by 2026. Employees have been replacing on average about 500 per year. In 2017, nearly 5,000 problematic connections were identified and so far 2,200 have been complete. 

Angela Gardiner, general manager of utilities and environment in Saskatoon, speaks about the city's lead pipe replacement program. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

According to the investigative report, Saskatoon also offers residents a subsidy to offset the costs of replacement. 

Wilson said Regina would also be looking to other cities to see what has worked. She said they are hoping to accelerate the pace of the replacement program.

"We will provide some options and recommendations for council to consider in the first quarter of next year."

with files from Bonnie Allen

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