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Getting the lead out of city’s drinking water

Published on

Cathy Dobson

City Coun. Bev MacDougall lives in a 130-year-old home in a section of “old Sarnia” earmarked for lead testing.

She wants to be first in line when the city begins testing drinking water in the area bordered by Exmouth, Murphy, Campbell and Front streets.

It’s a big area with an estimated 8,643 properties, many built prior to the 1950s when lead piping was generally used for both indoor plumbing and the underground service lines that carry water from the main line into each property.

A consultant anticipates some homes in MacDougall’s neighbourhood have drinking water exceeding the maximum allowable concentration of lead.

But many of these properties have already had the service lines and plumbing updated, says city engineer Mike Berkvens.

He predicts the actual number of houses where lead poses a problem is much, much lower than 8,643.

“There’s no need to panic,” said MacDougall. “I would have liked to see a plan roll out sooner but I’m glad to see the testing now.

“We don’t know until we look at it if there’s a problem and we don’t know what the levels of lead are, if they exist,” she said.

“Let’s hope everybody doesn’t get frightened.”

Immediately after consultant Monique Waller, of Jacobs Engineering Group, spoke to council about various options to deal with potential lead contamination, MacDougall did exactly what Berkvens recommends.

She and her husband looked at the water line connected to their home and were relieved to find it was copper, not old lead. It’s still possible the underground service line is lead or that plumbing fixtures or soldering inside the home are lead, so MacDougall also called city hall and requested a water test.

Anyone concerned can ask for the same thing and city staff will test their water, said Berkvens.  It’s part of the interim measure Sarnia is taking until a more concrete plan is in place.

Berkvens also recommends homeowners in houses predating 1950 take a look at the guidelines posted by Lambton Public Health online at https://lambtonhealth.on.ca/health-information/safe-water/drinking-water/lead-in-drinking-water.

Very few cases of lead poisoning have been reported in Canada, the guidelines note. However, homeowners with young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers should be particularly cautious. For adults, high lead levels are associated with cognitive and kidney problems or high blood pressure.

Berkvens said he anticipates the city will soon have information posted on its website about who homeowners in older houses should contact if they’re concerned about lead levels.

The provincial government is pushing all municipalities to reduce lead in drinking water. As far back as 2007, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change required lead sampling.

At that time, the Lambton Area Water Supply System (LAWSS), which provides drinking water to Sarnia and five other municipalities, did not have problematic lead levels. Nor did the city’s water distribution system.

However, a sampling did find exceedances in samples taken from some private properties in the oldest part of Sarnia.

Eleven years later, the city is still grappling with what strategy to take to address the lead. In part, the delay is because of a disagreement between the LAWSS board and the city over how to go about it.

The city has suggested a remedy used by many municipalities to treat the water supply with chemicals. The additives change the water chemistry by coating the inside of the pipes to stop lead absorption.

But LAWSS wasn’t in favour, so the city instead began replacing city-owned lead service lines up to the curb with plastic lines as annual infrastructure upgrades progressed.

Slowly, over the years, a large number of lead service lines have been replaced, Berkvens said.

Last year, for instance, when sewer separation took place on Talfourd and Devine streets in the south end, new service lines were also installed. Water tests showed none of the 130 adjacent houses had a lead problem.

Now, the ministry says Sarnia must have a more proactive lead reduction plan.

Council heard on May 28 from the consultant about various options going forward. Some are more aggressive than others. All are pricey.

On June 11, council meets again to decide which option it supports.

Berkvens said he favours a plan that calls for three years of investigation into what old service lines have been replaced to date and what buildings have elevated levels of lead in the drinking water.

Anyone with elevated levels will be counselled about using water filters and whether the service line on their property needs replacement.

Homeowners are responsible for the line on their own property. It can cost $3,000 to $4,000 to get that work done, so the city is considering a loan program to help out those homeowners, said MacDougall.

Berkvens’ and the consultant’s preferred plan calls for a 12-year program to eliminate all lead services following the three-year investigation. The initial three-year evaluation will help decide whether replacing service lines or using chemical treatments is a better way to go.

“This is an appealing option because we need more time to do the research,” said Berkvens.

“I think it’s the best solution for all.”

The first three years of Berkvens’ preferred plan would cost $1.17 million per year.

Whatever city council decides on June 11 will require ministry approval.

Any homeowners wishing to discuss lead testing can email city hall at [email protected].  The city also welcomes any updates from homeowners in the research area about whether their services are still lead. That information can be sent to the same email address.


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