Welcome to our witnesses.
From the Canadian Water Network, we have Bernadette Conant, chief executive officer.
From the Ontario Water Works Association, we have Michèle Grenier, executive director.
As individuals, from the Centre for Water Resources Studies in the faculty of engineering at Dalhousie University, we have Graham Gagnon, professor, and Benjamin Trueman, Ph.D. student.
Thank you all.
Please try to keep your comments to no more than five minutes, or I'll have to cut you off so that the members can have an opportunity to ask their questions.
Ms. Conant, would you like to lead off?
I'd be pleased to. Thank you.
Good afternoon, first of all, and thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today on this important topic.
My name is Bernadette Conant, and I'm the CEO of Canadian Water Network.
CWN is a national non-profit that serves as a trusted broker of research insights for use in the water sector. Our focus is on bringing about evidence-informed decisions about water. Of relevance today, part of the groundbreaking research supported by Canadian Water Network was on lead in drinking water. That work was led primarily by Dr. Michèle Prévost at l'École Polytechnique in Montreal and Professor Graham Gagnon of Dalhousie University, who is with us today. Both those researchers are internationally renowned professionals, and they've won prestigious awards for their work in that specific area.
The current focal point of CWN's programming is its Canadian Municipal Water Consortium. That's a nationwide collaboration of progressive water leaders who are advancing water management in Canada's cities and communities. It brings together practitioners, government, industry, academics, and other non-governmental groups to anticipate, respond, and adapt to water challenges facing our cities and communities. The topics are broad, but the focus is on community water management issues.
The leadership group of that consortium currently includes senior executives from the water utilities of 19 different municipalities from right across Canada—from Victoria to Halifax—and they collectively serve over 50% of the Canadian population.
To ensure that the consortium then is guided by an understanding of the key challenges these water practitioners face, we continually engage the consortium leadership group in discussions about existing and emerging priorities, assessing how the current knowledge base that's available can help address those needs or, conversely, determine what's needed to better support their decisions or actions.
It's from that position of being deeply engaged with that municipal water management and the research communities that I want to bring to you three key observations that I hope will basically set the framing for today's discussions and allow the other witnesses to give you the details that are helpful. Some of this repeats some of the pieces that your committee has talked about.
First, the public health issue of lead in drinking water and its relationship to lead in buried pipes and home fixtures is widespread. That's an important thing to communicate to the committee, from our experience. It's a recognized national issue of expressed importance by water utilities and cities right across Canada, and indeed internationally.
Second, the issue of lead in drinking water is different from other conventional concerns about water safety, such as pathogens. That is specific because it's not so much about the quality of the water produced by the drinking water plants or the supplies, but rather what happens to the chemistry of that water, how it changes as it makes its way through the distribution system, particularly, as you've talked about, within homes and buildings.
Third, research has shown quite convincingly that ingestion of lead is a problem even at very low levels, particularly for children. The current expectation based on experience in research is that we ultimately need to remove the lead pipes to address it over the long term. In fact, the partial replacement of lead pipes that you've discussed—so that replacement of part of the delivery on the public side, but not the private side—can actually make the problem worse, at least in the near term.
It's an important and not an isolated problem. Addressing the problem is complicated because it involves both public and private ownership, each having different sets of regulations, responsibilities, and liabilities. Addressing it effectively, therefore, requires action to be taken by both utilities and the public. If we're going to tackle it, both of those are required.
For the Canadian Water Network, lead is an issue that undeniably underscores the importance of going beyond the jurisdictional boundaries of water utilities or federal-provincial boundaries, which is always a challenge, I find, when we have these discussions at committee. However, we have to go beyond that if we're really concerned about public health as the ultimate goal.
Why is it relevant, and indeed important, to this particular committee? From my point of view, it's because the solution to this national public health problem involves many players, but it's ultimately about infrastructure. It's about addressing the lead in pipes in water systems. A solution to the problem therefore requires effectively addressing drinking water infrastructure all the way to the tap. Being successful at that is going to require coordinated action.
A couple of the main needs that you've discussed previously are determining the size and nature of the problem. To some degree, we know there is a problem, and different jurisdictions have lots of detailed information. Some have none. Therefore, we can conjecture about the size, but we really don't know the extent and the numbers in Canada of the—
My name is Michèle Grenier. I'm the executive director of the Ontario Water Works Association. We're a section of the American Water Works Association, which is the largest organization of water supply professionals in the world. The Canadian section was founded in 1916 and currently represents over 200 utilities across Canada that supply drinking water to more than 50% of all Canadians.
Our response to the proposed Health Canada guidelines was submitted as part of the AWWA Canadian affairs committee. We recognize that lead exposure from other sources has decreased significantly since the 1970s, and as a result the impacts from drinking water are now much more significant. In general, the committee's comments support the health-based approach for establishing the new objective, but we also want to emphasize the importance of corrosion control as part of the strategy, in addition to lead service line replacements.
The four key recommendations that were outlined in the Canadian affairs committee's remarks are around the interpretation of the proposed maximum acceptable concentration of lead, and that it must be representative of the water that people are consuming. Clarification is needed in terms of the application of the MAC as it relates to standing versus flush samples and the duration of the required stagnation period. The increased cost of the sampling analysis and the processing time must also be recognized.
Second, the achievability of the new MAC is an issue. The regulatory standard in Ontario is consistent with the existing Health Canada guidelines, and there are over 30 utilities that are already under orders to implement corrosion control. With the decrease in the proposed concentration, the number will increase by an additional 20. These represent significant costs that will be transmitted directly to ratepayers.
In addition, we have limited data so far that would determine whether or not the implementation of these corrosion control programs will allow municipalities to reliably achieve a reduction in lead levels from 10 parts per billlion to five parts per billion.
On the issue of lead service line replacement, we feel this is really the key area in which the federal government can have a role. As Bernadette mentioned, funding is a big issue, given that the private-side replacement is as important as the public-side replacement when it comes to the lead service line. There's been limited uptake so far on private-side lead service line replacement, mainly because it's difficult to explain to a homeowner why the replacement is required. In addition, the municipality has limited funding tools available to it in order to ensure that this portion of the work is completed.
We'd also like to highlight the timing of the implementation of the new standard. In many jurisdictions, the new guideline will come into effect immediately by reference in operating permits or existing regulations, whereas corrosion control studies can take months of planning and piloting before it's possible to roll them out at full scale. We request that additional time and guidance be provided to transition to the new framework.
Similarly, there's a requirement in the Safe Drinking Water Act in Ontario that makes elected officials personally liable for the operation of the drinking water system. The new standard in the proposed Health Canada guidelines for achieving lead levels that are as low as reasonably achievable becomes essentially indefensible for a municipal councillor unless additional guidance is provided to document and determine what is considered reasonably achievable.
In general, OWWA's position has been described as a three-pronged approach, whereby we would advocate for public-side lead service line replacement and private-side lead service line replacement, in addition to monitoring and sampling water quality and implementing effective corrosion control. The corrosion control element is often overlooked and is really essential, especially in larger buildings such as schools, where there is extensive plumbing and also contributions from lead components in the system, such as brass or lead solder, in facilities constructed pre-1980. It's an important focus that shouldn't be overlooked.
Last but not least, we highlight other similar federal programs, such as the Energy Star rebate programs, which provide incentives for homeowners to upgrade their existing appliances and whatnot to improve their energy efficiency. A similar program would allow homeowners to fund their lead service line replacement other than through municipal tax rolls or municipally offered financing.
Thank you very much.
Madam Chair, I will be pleased to answer questions in French as well.
My name is Graham Gagnon. I am a professor at Dalhousie University. I'm the director of the Centre for Water Resources Studies and I'm also the NSERC/Halifax Water industrial research chair in water quality and treatment at Dalhousie.
With me today is Mr. Ben Trueman, a Ph.D. student from our lab. Ben has worked with me for the past five years on many lead projects, working directly with Halifax Water and other utilities in our region and across Canada.
Our research team has been looking at corrosion since 1998, when I started at Dalhousie. In particular, we have been addressing lead in drinking water since about 2008, when we first started looking at lead solder in copper pipes. Over these years it has been clear to us how complex the problem is with lead in drinking water.
In particular, in 2011 our research group at Dalhousie started an important study that investigated lead service line replacement, in collaboration with Halifax Water. In the first phase of the work, Halifax Water asked whether we can provide safe water through partial lead service line replacement.
As was touched on, a partial lead service line replacement refers to the fact that in most areas, the water utility is responsible for water infrastructure from the water main to some area on the property line. The homeowner is therefore responsible for the remaining part of the service line.
After four years of data collection, we published two papers. One paper was awarded the best paper by the Journal – American Water Works Association. Another was published last year in Environmental Science & Technology. This four-year study revealed that a partial lead service line replacement was an inadequate solution. Indeed, for many homes, the situation actually worsened following a partial lead service line replacement.
In contrast, our data showed that a full lead service line replacement was the best way to ensure the household would see lower lead levels at the tap and that partial lead service replacements were not recommended. Because of this important research, Halifax Water does not conduct partial lead service line replacements anymore.
A colleague of mine, Dr. Michèle Prévost, published similar work in 2017. In studying lead service line replacements in Montreal, Dr. Prévost's team found that the lowest levels of lead were found when a full service line replacement was conducted. These findings are consistent with our work and with recommendations from the United States National Drinking Water Advisory Council, or NDWAC, to reduce lead in the home.
In addition to studying lead service line replacements, our team has studied corrosion control. Corrosion control is a process whereby water utilities can chemically alter their water to minimize lead release. Even after lead service lines have been replaced, there is still a need to have corrosion control, as lead exists in solder, brass, drinking water fountains, and many household and commercial fixtures. Thus, full lead service line replacement removes the largest lead source, but corrosion control is still necessary for managing risks from these other sources.
Our research with Halifax Water has shown that orthophosphates are highly effective at managing lead. After two years of data collection, we determined that an increase of phosphate from 0.5 milligrams per litre to 1 milligram per litre reduced the burden of lead at the tap by more than 30%. Of course, there are other possible strategies that utilities can address for corrosion control, but what is important to recognize is that a utility might have to wait 12 to 18 months for these changes to reveal their effectiveness.
I'm presently working with the City of Regina to further minimize lead at the tap, even though Regina has very few lead service line occurrences. This work is just getting started, and it's becoming clear to us and to the City of Regina how complex the situation will be for them.
Our team has also investigated lead occurrence in first nation communities in Atlantic Canada. Although compliance on flushed samples is greater than 90%, we have found that non-compliant lead samples exist across 85% of Atlantic Canadian first nation communities. We have also published similar work on lead occurrences we found in communities in Nunavut. In other words, lead is ubiquitous in first nation communities as well.
It is recognized by utilities and first nation communities that minimizing lead is important for public health. Health Canada has now proposed a lower maximum acceptable concentration for lead, as described by my colleagues. This guideline is combined with a sampling strategy that effectively will change the paradigm for monitoring lead across Canada.
While I support the intent of lowering lead levels at the tap, after years of studying this issue, I can say that a very sufficient and long time will be required for utilities to get to an answer.
If I may, I'll address the issue of fountains. Then I'll answer the question on roads.
You asked about the role of the federal government in the issue of fountains. We conducted a project that looked at fountains at Dalhousie University, and we found fountains that were actually lead-lined. They had chillers in them, and the chillers inside were lead-lined. We sampled the first 250 millilitres, as per Health Canada's guideline, and we found exceedances of lead as high as 80 micrograms or 100 micrograms per litre.
Why is that a federal issue? Canada has a trade agreement with the United States. In the early nineties, when the lead and copper rule was being passed in the United States, fountains with lead liners were recalled in the United States. Canada, through the standards committee, did not have a recall mechanism or any standard on fountains. Through the trade agreement, these fountains were then sold across the border into Canada and installed. We have evidence that a number of fountains that were completely not to be used in the United States were sold in Canada. You'd be hard pressed to ask a school in Ontario to be aware of the trade agreements and to be aware of what was being recalled in the United States from a procurement standpoint. The Government of Canada, through their standards committee, would have that information.
The issue of prioritization on lead pipes in streets is of course an important issue. You have to remember that a water main is different from a lead service line. A water main is buried infrastructure in the road, which is managed by the utility through normal asset management practices of the utility. The lead service line component is the tricky part. The service line is managed jointly by the municipality and the homeowner.
Most public buildings would not necessarily have a service line that would be lead. A public building like this one is large, so it would not have a lead service line, which is small. Lead service lines tend to be very focused on the home and smaller public buildings that would almost resemble homes.
With the infrastructure program, one of the opportunities, I think, much like Michèle talked about in terms of an energy savings program, is that it creates very localized construction opportunities for homeowners or streets or neighbourhoods that would have lead service lines. Certainly in many municipalities these areas or neighbourhoods are fairly well known, or well defined, at least. Health Canada's document explicitly calls these neighbourhoods out and asks utilities to measure in exactly these neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods would be fairly well known to the municipality.
As to how the federal government could roll that out to homeowners, it could be through a number of financial mechanisms—through the banking system, through their tax rebates, or through whatever program could be conceived.
We used the Energy Star program as an example in the sense that we were made aware that it was very successful in getting people to turn over their older appliances.
In this situation we would propose, or we would like to see, essentially a matching grant program for homeowners, in the sense that the municipality could approach you as a homeowner and advise you that they'd be replacing all of the lead service lines on your street, and if you participated in the renewal, you'd be eligible for a federal rebate or federal grant for your portion of that bill.
It's much more cost-effective for the homeowner to replace their portion of the lead service line at the same time as the municipality is doing the public side. You have one contractor who comes on site one time, digs up your front lawn and your sidewalk one time, and does all the restoration at the same time. The key is getting the homeowner on board at the time the public side is being replaced.
It's the lead service lines. You can imagine a piece of pipe. The utility is responsible for one side and the other side is the homeowner's responsibility. If the utility cuts their side—and because it's a continuous pipe, they will physically cut it—you can imagine that there are going to be particles and debris as a result of that cut.
There's also the potential for a dissimilar metal. If the utility chooses to use copper, there's a potential to have copper and lead, which would be almost like a battery cell, and you'd actually get more lead coming off your pipe.
Finally, there are just disturbances. The lead pipe itself is a very pliable pipe. That's why it was used by the Romans and why it was used early on. By just cutting it, you're essentially disturbing the other side. You'll create vibrations, and all kinds of other debris will come off the pipe. We looked at homes at as long as 12 months after the construction, and they still had higher lead than they did when the utility started the project.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I would like to thank the witnesses for being here today. I also want to thank them for their testimony although, after hearing them, I don't know how to look at a pitcher of water anymore. I don't know if I should see it as something healthy or something to fear.
My first question is as follows. Is there a broad consensus in the scientific community, or are further studies needed in one area or another, studies that could be supported by the Government of Canada and that could give us a more complete picture of the situation?
Mr. Gagnon or Ms. Grenier may answer my question.
If I understand Ms. Conant correctly, whether it is 10 or 5 parts per million, it does not make a huge difference. So I assume that the standard to be achieved is as close to zero as possible.
According to a study mentioned in a Radio-Canada article, the first sample collected at a school was well above the standard. If the water was left to run for five, 10 or 15 minutes, however, it was okay. Letting the water run is like wasting the hundreds of millions of dollars we invested to purify it.
In my opinion, we have to look at the big picture. There is much to be gained by ensuring that the plan implemented will almost require action from members of the public, or offer an incentive so obvious that it would be unavoidable. Otherwise we are missing the mark.
Did I understand correctly?
My next question is on Energy Star. I believe that was probably mandated by the utilities and picked up and paid for by the end-user. I guess what I'm getting at is that water rates in most municipalities are monitored and metered, and it's a user-pay system, as is the case for electricity.
I believe a lot of the electrical distributors have been mandated to do Energy Star programs, but then that is based back and put into the rate they can charge the utility customer. When you suggest an Energy Star system, what about a system that would also be able to be put back into the water rates and adjusted?
You're sitting here and saying the federal government should pay for it. I think in the notes it was $5,000 or $6,000 a house, which isn't a lot of money spread over time. To go back to the energy side, if the electrical box in a house is not running right, you shut the electrical grid off and make them repair it, but if houses have lead pipes that are poisoning our children, we don't seem to have the moral authority to go in and look at this.
From the Ontario side, or from the Canada side, or from your agencies, have there been any suggestions to say to municipalities, especially those that still have lead pipes in their systems, that maybe building permits and so on will not be issued...the same way they do for waste-water plants?
The information I found on the Energy Star program is hosted on the Natural Resources Canada website. I'm not aware of whether it was eventually funnelled back as a user-pay system.
On the user-pay issue, yes, I think that tax rolls are one way to finance the replacement. Some municipalities are looking at 10-year interest-free amortization of that cost on the homeowner's tax bill. As Bernadette mentioned, one of the other options is to engage with the provincial real estate associations and make the disclosure of a lead service line mandatory as part of the transaction when you're selling your home.
Fundamentally, the issue is not with mothers or parents with young children. Where we see the most resistance to changing out the lead service line is with more mature customers, who feel that they are outside of the risk zone for the negative impacts on their health from lead, and they don't feel a personal incentive, whether based on their health or their finances, to complete that replacement.
The Library of Parliament provided us with a document that quotes a book, I think, indicating that they believe 200,000 Canadian homes are still connected to municipal water systems through lead service lines from the property line. That seems like a big number. I'm sure it's completely legitimate—it's at least 200,000—but I believe the city of Flint has identified 15,000 lead service lines to a city of under 100,000.
It seems to me that the estimate could be extremely low. Is that possible? How solid is this number? It could be two million; I don't know. If Flint has 15,000 in a city of under 100,000, it seems completely possible that there could be half a million homes with lead service lines. How solid are we with this 200,000 number? Where is it at, exactly?
I'm calling our meeting back to order.
For our second panel we have Carl Yates, the general manager for Halifax Water, and Reid Campbell, director of water services.
By video conference we have Marc Edwards, professor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia. It's your Thanksgiving over there, and we thank you very much for taking time to join us for this important issue today.
We also have Bruce Lanphear, professor, Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University.
Thank you to all of you who are here.
Mr. Edwards, since it's Thanksgiving and I'm sure you want to get back to your family, how about if we start with you?
Let's open the floor for five minutes. If I have to, so the committee can get their questions in, I'll interrupt you.
Mr. Edwards, please go ahead.
Thank you for having me.
In the U.S. we're currently in the midst of a paradigm shift in how we're thinking about our water infrastructure. There are three main reasons for that.
First, we're trying to deal with the legacy of these lead pipes. If you ever read a book called The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster , you'll realize that these pipes were installed as a result of government laws to connect your house to the service line, and once they became almost the only government-owned source of lead affecting a product intended for human consumption, it created a conflict of interest and put our water utilities at odds with their customers' interests.
We saw many manifestations of this problem in the United States, including some horrible water-borne disease outbreaks from elevated blood lead in Washington, D.C., and in Flint and other parts of the country. It has undermined trust in drinking water in the United States to an almost unprecedented level. Last year, for example, bottled water sales exceeded soda sales. As I toured the country, I could see that many people had decided they would not be drinking tap water, again because of some of the fallout and distrust from Flint.
The second problem we're dealing with is our aging infrastructure. Of course, these pipes are out of sight, out of mind, and this is a trillion-dollar problem. We used to think that these old leaking pipes were just that. They would leak; we'd fix them on failure, and maybe they would rust and cause discolouration or aesthetic concerns for our water.
However, the more we looked at it, the more we learned. We're realizing links to water-borne disease. This new class of disease-causing bacteria that live in our plumbing we've discovered only in the last several decades. We realized that these old pipes encourage the growth of these dangerous bacteria. They're called “opportunistic premise plumbing pathogens”, and the best-known example is Legionella.
Third, we're having a paradigm shift in the States because we're asking more of our water infrastructure. As we try to improve our water and energy conservation, we're using less and less water. Unfortunately, what that means for lead, Legionella, and these other problems is that all those problems get worse. Unlike roads, which degrade more slowly if you use them less, the main mechanism of water system failure is anaerobic corrosion. In other words, the less you use the pipes, the more rapidly they'll degrade. As we install these water conservation measures around the country, the water that used to clean our pipes, extend their longevity, and reduce the amount of bacteria and lead in the water is being lost. As a result, in many cities in the United States—and based on some anecdotal evidence, in Canada—we're also seeing higher levels of lead and also higher levels of these dangerous bacteria in homes that use less water.
All of these things are forcing us to reconsider this issue, and I'm glad Canada is taking a look at this situation.
Thank you for having me here today.
First I would like to applaud your efforts, and Health Canada's efforts, to update the guidance on lead and to modernize the water service lines in Canada to protect Canadians. Protecting the health of Canadians is to a large extent about ensuring that the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat are clean and healthy.
My research over the past 25 years has been primarily focused on protecting children from lead poisoning, and I'll focus my comments today on lead toxicity for the most part.
My early studies quantified the various sources of lead that contribute to children developing lead poisoning, including paint, house dust, soil, and water. We found that water is one of the most important sources of lead for children, pregnant women, and the rest of us.
We found that at high levels of exposure, lead damages the prefrontal cortex—that's the part of the brain that makes us most distinctly human—and elevates the risk that children will develop anti-social behaviours such as delinquency, and even criminal behaviours. We also found that children who were exposed to high levels of lead were at increased risk for developing other types of behavioural problems, such as ADHD. In fact, we found that about one in five cases of ADHD, or 600,000 cases in the United States, were due to lead exposure.
Low-level lead exposure in pregnant women has also been linked to children being born too small and too soon.
Finally, we found that lead is toxic at the lowest levels of exposure. The World Health Organization has concluded that there is no safe level of lead in children's blood.
Although we focus primarily on the impact on children's health, lead is an established risk factor for hypertension, chronic kidney disease, and essential tremors in adults. It is also suspected, but not proven, to increase the risk of death from ischemic heart disease—that's when your heart suffocates over many years from lack of oxygen—and dementia.
While we've made progress in reducing lead in our environment, water pipes and fountains remain an important source of lead for many Canadians, especially for smaller communities and first nation communities.
Currently Health Canada relies on a guidance of 10 parts per billion of lead in water. That's the equivalent of about 10 tablespoons in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I concur with Health Canada's conclusion that 10 parts per billion is no longer protective. Children who live in homes with water lead levels above five parts per billion have, on average, a one-microgram-per-decilitre increase of blood lead, which is estimated to reduce their intellectual ability by about one to one and a half IQ points. Women who live in homes with water lead levels above five parts per billion have about a 30% increase in blood lead levels.
As Health Canada has said, the maximum acceptable concentration of lead in water should be reduced to five parts per billion, and over the next 10 or 20 years steps should be taken to reduce it even further.
I'd like to stop there and be available for questions later.
Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the committee. My name is Carl Yates. I'm general manager of Halifax Water.
Halifax Water is the water, waste-water, and stormwater utility serving 360,000 people in the greater Halifax area. I am accompanied by Reid Campbell, our director of water services, who has been leading much of our work on lead in drinking water for the past several years.
We want to thank the committee for the invitation to appear here today and for taking the time to look into this issue, which we believe needs more attention by water utilities and their provincial regulators across Canada. The issue of lead in drinking water is manageable, but a regulatory framework is needed to enable utilities to develop approaches to address the unique circumstances in their community.
We believe that lead in drinking water is a more serious issue than many utilities in Canada and their provincial regulators understand. Current regulations do not provide adequate public health protection and do not require utilities to truly investigate and understand the occurrence of lead in their systems.
Halifax Water has had programs to remove lead service lines since the 1970s. At one point, we may have had as many as 15,000 lead service lines, and today we have as few as 2,000 lead service lines remaining in the public system. We have provided corrosion control treatment since 2002 and have always provided free in-home sampling for customers concerned about lead. For any customer who requested it, we would replace the public lead service line once they replaced the private property portion.
Around 2010, as you've already heard, through our research partnership and the industrial research chair at Dalhousie University, we encouraged Dr. Graham Gagnon to look into the occurrence of lead in our system. Dr. Gagnon's work gave us new insights into the occurrence of lead in our system and directed us to enhance our approach to managing lead. We discovered that to properly address lead, we needed to completely remove lead service lines and stop doing partial replacements. We also needed to increase our level of corrosion control and to treat each customer with a lead service line as a customer who needs assistance.
This created quite a challenge, considering that the customer owns a portion of the line, the constraints on utilities getting involved in private property issues, and the barriers to customers renewing lead service lines, including costs.
In January 2017, the American Water Works Association, AWWA, adopted a new policy on lead service line management. While AWWA is based in the United States, most Canadian utilities are members, and AWWA is considered the authoritative technical resource relied on by utilities across North America. The new policy calls on utilities to undertake complete removal of lead services lines in a reasonable period of time and to provide corrosion control treatment. Most importantly, it calls on utilities to work in partnership with their customers to achieve removal of lead from the distribution system by developing locally appropriate solutions. It is our belief that the best way for utilities to protect their customers from lead is to follow the guidance of the AWWA policy. This also includes initiatives like creating an inventory of lead service lines, communicating with customers, and providing the sampling that they require.
We believe the role of government in this issue is to provide a framework to support utilities in this approach. The occurrence of lead in any given system is much more complex and locally variable than are traditional drinking water parameters, such as bacteria and arsenic. Simply creating a compliance level and requiring utilities to meet it will not improve public health outcomes. Our experience is that a high lead level in a home requires both the utility and the customer to take action together to address the lead service line that they jointly own.
Government has a role to assist homeowners and utilities with the many barriers to private lead service line replacement, such as cost, insurance, and liability issues related to work on private property. The federal government has an opportunity to provide leadership by dedicating national funding programs for water and waste-water infrastructure to this issue. This would have national impact and direct work to many small business contractors that typically do service work.
Assistance to homeowners could also be provided to help them deal with the private portion of the service through tax credits or homeowner assistance programs.
Government also has a role to ensure that the presence of lead service lines is identified for properties at the point of sale, when it can be dealt with as part of the real estate transaction.
In January of this year, Health Canada proposed a new guideline for lead in drinking water. We believe this is timely and appropriate and will cause utilities to look more closely at lead in their system.
We have urged Health Canada to consider the points that follow.
If a provincial regulator finds a utility non-compliant on lead, the predominant way to achieve compliance in most systems is to remove the entire lead service, part of which is on private property. Today, many utilities do not have mechanisms to work on private property.
Changing the guideline in one big step, as is proposed, will result in many instances of utilities not being able to achieve the guideline levels. This will create the impression in the eyes of the public of a health crisis where none existed before.
We would prefer to see one of two approaches.
One approach would be to not publish a health-related guideline immediately but to work with the provinces to ensure that utilities take steps over the next few years to characterize their lead situation.
The second approach is to recognize that a utility cannot act alone to solve a lead exceedance. Therefore, the provinces could be encouraged to adopt a household action level approach that, rather than finding utilities out of compliance, directs them to take steps to notify, educate, and partner with customers to get their lead issue addressed.
We once again thank you for inviting us here. We would be pleased to address any questions you may have.
Thank you very much, Chair. I appreciate being part of it.
I'm fortunate to come from a municipality that has a program in place and that over several years has begun to replace some of the lead service pipes. It's interesting to listen to your testimony juxtaposed side by side. One person was saying that we virtually have somewhat of a crisis in the way that lead affects young people in particular, in the development of the brain. Of course, as you mentioned, lowering the amount that is permissible would just amplify that as far as a public concern goes, all of which is troubling in and of itself.
Let me ask you this. Is there any technology at present that can actually filter lead out of drinking water? Second, if there is not, is there any pending technology research so that we could have a filtration system that would be a temporary fix as we're eliminating all this lead?
Thank you very much, Madam Chair, and I thank all of our witnesses for joining us today.
I heard earlier that a federal-provincial-territorial committee is currently considering whether to lower the drinking water standard for lead to five parts per billion, which is half of what the existing standard is.
When I look at the role of that committee itself, I see that it is a well-established national committee that has been active for over 20 years. Quite frankly, it reports to the federal-provincial-territorial committee on health and the environment, and usually the members who sit on that committee are from the departments of health or environment. I simply flag that for us here in terms of some of the recommendations that we may want to make coming out of this study, because it's clear that the management of drinking water treatment and distribution, as well as waste-water treatment, falls within the provincial jurisdiction.
Also, the FCM has identified that many municipalities are aware of the issues associated with legacy water infrastructure and have been working proactively. I too am very fortunate to live in one of those communities—Saskatoon, Saskatchewan—which has been identified by the FCM.
They've also indicated that they are not aware of a reliable national estimate of the number of lead service lines that are still in use in Canada today, so I think there's a lot of work that needs to be done. We're conducting this study to figure out what we can do in terms of encouraging provinces to put programs in place or even to provide funding.
In closing, on all of those observations I've made, I would say that I've really appreciated the very good testimony we've heard today. I think we have a good understanding of the issue. I would suggest, Madam Chair, that perhaps once we're done with this study, we would want to write a letter to either the health committee or the environment committee, to suggest that they perhaps would want to conduct a study in parallel to what we've done in order to see what can happen at those levels that appear to have the responsibility for studying this issue and coming up with recommendations on a good health policy for Canadians.
There are certainly several. I'll touch on those and then ask our director of water services for Halifax Water to add to that.
Our goal is to break down as many barriers as possible. Cost is one, right up front. People don't necessarily want to make that big investment. Also, there is just inconvenience and knowledge. There is the inconvenience of having to dig up your front lawn, and the knowledge required to arrange for a contractor to come to your doorstep and go through that contractual relationship, not knowing whether you're getting a good deal or not.
What we've done as a utility is pre-clear some of our contractors to be available to customers. We have now named contractors for our customers to contact, and as you said, we will encourage folks to do it once.
We have provided an incentive as well. That's another barrier. We've just been successful through our regulator, Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, at providing 25% of the costs on the private side. We're realizing that the financial piece is still a big piece and we're trying to break those barriers down.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I would also like to thank our witnesses for being here.
My first remarks are for you, Mr. Yates.
You said that the federal government should implement a regulatory framework. During our discussions today and at the last meeting, however, I noticed that the witnesses all believe that they do not have reliable statistics. The federal government could always tell the municipalities to use infrastructure funding to offer a program, but if this specific issue is to be addressed and a program created for that purpose, no responsible government would take on such an important task without understanding its scope.
If an inventory had to be completed in Canada, what would that involve? Would it mean collecting data from the municipalities, the provinces and territories, even if they did not have solid data and it meant starting from scratch to complete the inventory?
My question is also for Mr. Edwards because, in the United States, before they tackle a problem, they complete such an inventory to assess the scope of the problem at hand.
Perhaps Mr. Yates could answer, and then Mr. Edwards.
From the outset, we have certainly understood the need to look at all water lines, all the way to the owner's tap. Yet an owner might refuse to convert their portion and prefer to run the risks themselves, because they are not part of groups at risk in terms of health, they are too old, they cannot afford it or for some other reason. Yet we all know that, in Canada, there is just one water main. There is not one for drinking water and another for waste water.
Will the water coming out of that residence that is contaminated by lead from the owner's pipes be treated again before flowing back into the river that it came from?
If so, we will endlessly be treating the same problem because certain owners refuse to do their part.
Mr. Ken Hardie: There we go.
Mr. Carl Yates: There are a couple of things that go on, as Dr. Gagnon has said, but we believe that one of the most important things is that a lot of the lead is in the form of solid particles that have adhered to the inside of the lead service line. When that's cut, disturbed, moved, or rolled up as part of the construction process, those lead particles get released. They sit in the pipe and, as water moves through the lead service line over the next period of months or years, those particles get moved into the plumbing and through the tap.
There is less political involvement; that is correct. I will name that for you.
We do well by that model. We have two regulators. We have water quality and effluent monitoring, and we have business monitoring by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board. Between those two regulators, they have good governance oversight for us, but in the end, we also care a lot about our customers.
I guess that's our own leadership. We really do care about customer service. We have a history of turning around systems that are in rough shape. When we see a problem, we don't wait a long time to act.
That is also why early in the game, we got Dr. Gagnon involved. As a matter of fact, he said he had been doing research since 1998; we got him right out of grad school and put him to work right away, and we've been doing it ever since. We're very fortunate that this year, 2017, marks the 10th anniversary of our industrial research chair with Dr. Gagnon. That was basically what we call a catalyst to get to the bottom of the lead issue and understand it.
I want to come back to that. It's very important that each utility and each municipality get to understand their lead problem. They're not going to have all the answers overnight, and that's why we were fortunate to get in on the ground floor, as they say, to start early, to recognize a problem early and to then take steps to really understand the problem before we jumped in with solutions.