The City of Swift Current has started a multi-phase plan to identify water services to households and businesses that are still using lead pipes.
Mitch Minken, the City’s general manager of infrastructure and operations, said the implementation of the water services identification plan is a precautionary measure to gather information about water services and to take corrective steps where necessary.
“Nothing has changed overnight,” he emphasized. “We've had lead services for many, many years and this is not a health epidemic of any sort. So this is all precautionary. This is nothing to panic about. If you're concerned, the best thing you can do is get yourself a good water filter, no matter what kind of plumbing you have.”
The City decided to launch this plan after recent media reports about the potential of lead contamination from lead service lines and plumbing fixtures inside buildings that contain lead and lead solder. These reports were the result of a large collaborative investigation by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, during which 900 homes were surveyed in 38 communities across the country.
“We're moving ahead with this now based on the concern that was raised in the media recently that brought us to the point where we believe it's time that we take a good, serious look at this issue,” Minken said.
The City’s focus will be on the water pipes that connect the water supply from the City to the pipes inside residential and commercial buildings. This is the most likely place where lead pipes might still be in use in older buildings, because the rest of the City’s water supply system is lead free.
“What we do know is that we have no lead coming in our source water,” he said. “We test that annually and for the past years it's been undetectable. So there's no lead there. There's no lead used in the main pipes of the system. So all the main pipes are of some other material. The only place that lead was used in the water system was from the main pipe in the street to the property. So that's the only place where there's lead in the system that could lead to having lead in the drinking water.”
Some of the water services in Swift Current were installed a century ago and there are no adequate records to verify the material used in all these older connections to the water mains.
“Water services go back to the beginning of the water system in Swift Current,” he said. “Unfortunately, in those earlier years, we have records of where they were put in, but there were no records kept of what material was used. Lead was pretty common up until about 1960. However, we really don't know. There's lots of copper that was used as well, which has lead us to go into this identification project. The start of where we go to mitigate this issue is to figure out just how many lead services we have in the system.”
The installation of lead services as part of City infrastructure or at residential and commercial buildings stopped about 50 to 60 years ago. Many buildings and areas of the city can therefore be eliminated from this process due to the time of construction.
“We're looking at the homes that were built sort of pre-1960, because there's no sense looking in say Highland subdivision or Trail subdivision,” he said. “We know that those are either copper or plastic. There's no chance that those services are lead in those areas. They're just too new.”
As a first step to identify lead pipes that are still used to supply water to buildings, the City has asked staff to take photographs of water services at their personal residences. This will allow the City’s Infrastructure and Operations Division to quickly determine the kind of water services used in different neighbourhoods.
“That will guide us to what areas we need to focus on first and foremost,” he said. “It gives us a good opportunity to get some data real quick. They're just going to go and take a picture of where the water pipe comes out of the floor in the basement. There's typically a valve and then the water meter. So we want to see that section of the service that comes out of the floor to the main shut-off valve in the home.”
The material used for this section of the service that is visible in basements will be a clear indication of whether that water service connection might still be using lead pipes.
“We'll be able to tell pretty quickly by looking at it what it is and if we're unsure, we'll be making a trip to actually go and have a look and see what we've got there,” he said. “We'll be moving very, very quickly into also gathering it from the general public. We're going to start doing that identification immediately. We're looking to have that done within the next couple of months or so where we have every home in the target area identified.”
The intention is to gather information about water connection services in target areas in two ways. The City will accept photographs taken by residents of the connection services visible in their basements and City employees will also visit homes to inspect services.
Water testing will be carried out in some buildings where lead pipes are still used for water service connections.
“It sort of depends on the scope of how many services we find, but the next step will be to start doing some testing to see whether these services have high lead content or not,” he said. “We're going to take water samples and they'll be off to the Saskatchewan Health Authority's provincial lab to test for lead content.”
Minken noted that the use of lead pipes for water connections does not imply there will be a high lead content in the water, because the City manages the pH levels in treated water to create a natural barrier inside the pipe system. It reduces the potential of leaching of lead and other elements off the pipes into the water.
“If pH gets acidic then it becomes corrosive and it will actually deteriorate that natural scale that gets build up on the inside of the pipe,” he explained. “It will clean it out and then the water is in direct contact with the lead. Whereas if it's a little bit on the base side, then it allows that scale to be build up on the inside of it, which sort of seals the inside and doesn't give the water exposure to the lead.”
The City will decide whether it is necessary to replace any lead pipes still used for water service connections after it has gathered information about how many of those pipes are still in use.
The current policy determines that the cost to replace water pipes are shared between the property owner and the City. An owner is responsible for the cost of the pipe section from the property line to the connection inside the basement, while the City covers the cost from the property line to the connection with the water main.
This policy is currently under review and any amendments will be influenced by the results of this investigation into the number of lead pipes still in use to connect water services.
“It is going to depend on whether there's actual high lead content in the water or not, but eventually I can see that lead services are probably going to need to be replaced,” he said. “Now, do they have to be replaced tomorrow? Not likely. There are things that can be done to mitigate it. First of all, if there's no high lead content it's not really an immediate concern and if there is, stripping the lead out of that water is as simple as getting yourself a good water filter to filter your drinking water. Certainly, that's what we're recommending right now in the interim is to get a proper water filter, particularly if you have a lead service.”
Residents with any concerns or questions about the City’s water services identification plan can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and call 306-778-2748. Additional information is also available on the City’s website at www.swiftcurrent.ca/leadservices