Consultation on Lead in Drinking Water and Amendments to the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality
by Andrew Henry,
The Ontario Municipal Water Association continues to strive to be The Voice of Ontario’s Public Water Authorities, representing municipalities and municipally-owned water systems across Ontario. On behalf of our municipal members, we look to develop and implement long-term drinking water, wastewater and storm water policies and programs for the benefit of the greater public, strive to ensure sustainable water-related utilities in Ontario, and address our most-pressing issues that we face in the water resource sector.
The OMWA has reviewed Health Canada’s consultation document with regard to lead in drinking water. The Association agrees with the science and reasoning behind the proposed changes in the maximum allowable concentration of lead in drinking water from 0.010 mg/L (10 µg/L) to 0.005 mg/L (5 µg/L) but has some concerns with regard to the overall program application and potential liabilities for water utilities in Ontario.
Corrosion Control and Mitigation Strategies
To date, much of the action plans related to lead in drinking water has focused on mitigation strategies in order to reduce the overall exposure to lead and the associated risks to human health. Indeed much of the legislation in Ontario, for example, has focused on the reduction of soluble lead within the drinking water, largely from lead services and fixtures, through corrosion control measures. The proposed reduction of the maximum allowable concentration to 5 µg/L continues this mitigation strategy within an “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” framework, but is only a stop-gap measure to resolving this issue on a greater scale.
Since this issue came to the fore in Ontario in 2007, municipalities and municipal water utilities in Ontario have implemented a variety of programs in order to address this issue, many of which have implemented corrosion control measures in order to address provincial standards and regulatory requirements. In addition, lead service replacement programs have been implemented, to varying degrees of success. In many cases, municipalities offer an incentive to property owners to replace the private-portion of the lead service when the municipality/utility changes the service within the public right-of-way. Even in the few cases where 100% of the cost of the private portion of the service is covered by the municipality/utility, we are seeing only 40% to 50% replacement rates by homeowners in replacing the privately-owned portion of the service.
It is the position of the Ontario Municipal Water Association that there is a general lack of a holistic approach and comprehensive program that addresses the issue of lead in drinking water. The requirement for a corrosion control plan and other mitigation strategies does not address the issue at its source; most lead in drinking water comes from lead services between the municipal distribution system and the point of consumption. Until such time as the lead services are removed, lead in drinking water will continue to be a significant risk to human health which will only be minimally addressed through various mitigation measures.
Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act, 2002
In addition to the lack of an overall program to remove the source of lead contamination of drinking water, the Ontario Municipal Water Association has additional concerns related to legal liability within the context of Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act, 2002.
Health Canada’s consultation document suggests that even at 5 µg/L lead poses a significant risk to human health. The Standard of Care provisions of the Act apply to all individuals that have decision-making authority of the drinking water system, and applies specific penalties for offenses under the Act. It is our opinion that the premise of these and other related provisions is that those with decision-making authority may not knowingly take an action or inaction which may constitute a threat to human health.
The application of “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” framework is premised on the application of operational measures and utilization of technology to lower the lead concentration, but not to a point where the lead concentration no longer poses a threat to human health, nor does it address the source of the contamination itself. The Association suggests, in this context, and in keeping we believe with the intent of Health Canada’s consultation document, that the documentation and discussions of this topic not expose those in decision-making authority in Ontario to increased legal liability.
Even if a municipality or utility undertakes reasonable operational measures or other mitigation strategies to reduce lead levels in drinking water to less than the 5 µg/L recommended by Health Canada, some might argue that the municipality or utility would be making this decision knowing that it still poses a risk to human health. This would only further add to the need to address the need for a comprehensive program which eliminates the contaminant at its source; the removal of the lead service both within the public right-of-way and on private property.
In summary, the Ontario Municipal Water Association would like to encourage Health Canada to work with the Province of Ontario and its Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change in developing and implementing a more comprehensive program to eliminate this threat to human health in order to better address this issue overall.
NB. This letter was originally sent to the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water Secretariat, Water and Air Quality Bureau, Health Canada, Ottawa, and copied to Premier Kathleen Wynn, Honourable Glen Murray, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Orna Salamon, Acting Chief Drinking Water Inspector (MOECC), Jim Smith, Chair, Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council,and Bill Garibaldi, President Ontario Water Works Association.