Lead pipes removed from the ground in Halifax last year. Photo: Zane Woodford

Halifax Water wants to pay to replace every lead pipe in the city over the next 18 years with a plan that’s unrivalled across the country, but the utility heard concerns on Monday that the timeline may still be too slow for some homeowners.

The utility made the case for the plan to its regulator, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (UARB) on Monday along with an application to keep its rates flat for the year ahead. The UARB has to approve the application because it needs to amend Halifax Water’s rules and regulations to explicitly allow the utility to pay the full cost of removing lead pipes.

Lead is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and young children, potentially causing cognitive and behavioural issues. Prolonged exposure can cause a litany of health problems for adults, too. Health Canada says there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and it should be “kept as low as reasonably achievable.”

But up until the mid-1950s, lead was the preferred pipe for bringing drinking water into homes in Halifax.

There are an estimated 3,500 private lead service lines — the pipes carrying water from the shut-off at the property line into the meter in ratepayers’ homes — left in peninsular Halifax and urban Dartmouth. There are another 2,000 pipes on the public side, carrying water from the main distribution line to the shut-off.

Halifax Water has had a rebate program since 2017 covering 25% of the cost of replacing ratepayers’ private lead service lines up to $2,500. Uptake has been worse than the utility had hoped: 200 people have taken advantage of the program, with an average payout of about $900.

The utility’s goal til last year was to replace all the lead pipes by 2050. But at the rate they were going, they were on track to complete the work by 2064.

Now Halifax Water is proposing to pay 100% of the cost of replacing the lead pipes and get them all out of the ground by 2038. No other Canadian utility is paying the entire cost.

In its application to the UARB, Halifax Water says there are jurisdictions in the U.S. already paying the full cost and others in the process of amending their regulations to do so.

Lead is a public health risk and the most effective way for a utility to ensure removal of all lead is to take control of the timeline, planning and scope of work. Assuming financial responsibility for the private renewal has been determined by many utilities to be the best way to assume the required control of the replacement process. This approach reduces the administrative costs of the program, requires significantly less enforcement, addresses affordability concerns, allows for realization of cost savings from integrating with paving projects, and economy of scale allows for cost savings for targeted removal projects such areas with high density LSLs or sensitive populations.

Halifax Water’s board approved the ambitious plan in December following a nationwide collaborative investigation led by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, with partners including Global News, the Toronto Star and the now-defunct StarMetro Halifax. That investigation uncovered dangerous levels of lead in drinking water in schools and wells across Nova Scotia, and revealed a testing history of high levels of lead in homes in Halifax amid lacklustre uptake in the utility’s rebate program.

The stories caused a spike in calls and website visits about lead, but in its application to the UARB, Halifax Water wrote that it didn’t believe that would mean increased uptake of its program.

“Furthermore, the more customers that do replace in response to these requests, leaves a pool of customers with (lead service lines) whose barriers to replacement … are likely more challenging than lack of awareness or concern for health implications,” the application said.

“What the public response to the media does show is that there is concern over this issue, despite low private uptake and there is a need for utility action to remove barriers to private uptake of (lead service line renewal).”

The costs of the existing program and the proposed program are comparable in the long-term: $33.6 million by 2064 to keep the status quo or $34.8 million by 2038 for the enhanced plan (all in 2019 dollars).

The accelerated timeline means a much higher annual cost of $2.3 million, compared to $939,200. Though Halifax Water’s rates won’t increase this year, the program eventually means “a slight impact on water rates compared to the status quo option.”

‘They may be waiting for 10, 20 years’

A consultant hired by the UARB and the board’s consumer advocate are both in favour of the plan, but there are concerns about the wait for some homeowners.

In the interest of efficiency and cost-saving, Halifax Water would replace every lead pipe on a street when that street is being paved by Halifax Regional Municipality. Outside of that paving work, the utility would also target streets with a high density of lead pipes, and individual homes with at-risk occupants like pregnant women, children, and seniors.

If a homeowner who is not considered to be at risk wants their pipes replaced sooner, they’ll only qualify for the existing 25% rebate up to $2,500.

“If you’re waiting for a street renewal, they may be waiting for 10, 20 years,” UARB lawyer Bruce Outhouse said on Monday.

Halifax Water general manager Cathie O’Toole said that’s correct.

“We’re also looking at how we can have a targeted program for individual customers that have more sensitivity, where there might be more urgent public health concerns,” O’Toole said.

That targeting program has yet to be fully developed, but she added that the utility provides free testing and water filtration kits for households while they wait to have their pipes replaced.

“I can understand a priority system, but if you’re waiting for street renewal, you could be there literally forever,” Outhouse said.

The board finished the hearing on Monday, and reserved its decision. It will receive written final arguments from Halifax Water and the consumer advocate within the next few weeks before releasing the decision on both the lead service line proposal and Halifax Water’s general application to leave rates flat for the next year.

Halifax Water spokesperson James Campbell said in an email that the utility can’t estimate the timeline of the UARB’s decision, but it has asked that the rates and the changes to rules and regulations, including the lead service line renewal program, become effective Sep. 1.

Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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