Following an investigation that found some Calgarians had elevated levels of lead in their drinking water, and that lead mitigation was not being tackled aggressively, the City of Calgary maintains that its drinking water is safe and only 550 homes have lead service lines. 

However, the city did not reveal to residents that it doesn’t know the materials for thousands of city-owned drinking water lines. They are classified as “unknown.”

“I believe that the ethical approach is to assume that the unknown pipes are lead until proven otherwise,” said Marc Edwards — a Virginia Tech engineering professor who helped expose the Flint, Mich. lead drinking water crisis — in an email to the Calgary Journal last month. Lead is a health hazard and there is no known safe amount for consumption.

Calgary residents are now able to find out the material of the public water line to their address on the city’s Public Water Service Lines map

In 2021 — barring delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic — the city will make a new effort to understand unknown materials for the public side of water lines in homes dated 1950 and older. Homeowners are responsible for knowing the water line material on their side of the property line.

A city-owned water service line is installed by a developer or builder, and then “donated” to the city per its water line tracking system, according to communications from the City of Calgary. 

Oki. We are grateful to live and work in the traditional territories of the Niitsita’pi and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Siksika, Piikani, Kainai, Tsuut’ina and the Iyarhe Nakoda. The Blackfoot name of this place where the Bow River meets the Elbow River is Moh’kins’tsis, which we now call Calgary. The city is also home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.

A water line is classified as “unknown” when information is not supplied by the builder or developer as part of the development agreement — or if the information seems to be a mistake. 

“For example, in a new community we may receive a report where all but one service line is coded as ‘copper.’ Our assumption is that a mistake in coding has been made, so until it can be confirmed it is marked as unknown,” the City of Calgary said in a statement. 

Water lines may also be unknown in communities annexed by the city, such as Bowness, which used to be a town of its own before being amalgamated into Calgary in 1964.

Given that a developer is required to report on the material of the water line, it’s unclear why there are thousands of addresses with unknown water service lines in Calgary. The city did not answer a question about whether developers or their contractors were failing to report the material of a water line, or if the city was not inputting information. 

The city has two sets of unknown water line records — one for those homes built before 1950 and another for those built after. 

A colour-coded map provided by the City of Calgary on May 27, 2020, showing where water service lines made of an unknown material can be found. This data is not yet available for all Calgary communities, particularly newer neighbourhoods. PHOTO: CITY OF CALGARY

According to a dataset given to the Calgary Journal from the City of Calgary, the communities with the most water lines of unknown materials for homes built before 1950 are:

Beltine: 39

Hillhurst: 30

Mission: 24

Inglewood: 19

Ramsay: 17

Sunnyside: 16

See the full list here.

For homes built after 1950, the communities with the most unknown water line materials are:

Southview: 431

Signal Hill: 348

Thorncliffe: 293

Martindale: 259

Hidden Valley: 248

See the full list here.

The dataset is accurate as of May 2020. City of Calgary Water Services had intended to verify the materials for homes before 1950 — beginning with those constructed between 1939 and 1947 — via hydrovac beginning this year.

However, that plan has been pushed to 2021, and will depend on the city’s pandemic response and whether it is safe to enter homes for water testing.

The city’s plan is to first sample tap water to test for lead. A water filter can be provided to the customer during the test period, if requested by the homeowner. 

If lead appears in the sample, the city will verify that the public water line is made from lead and propose to remove it as part of the accelerated lead pipe removal program.

While the city will focus its efforts on homes built prior to 1950 — as its data shows it is rare to see lead service lines (LSLs) installed after that date, newer homes also might have LSLs, according to the Government of Alberta. 

A recent guidance document for utilities notes that “The National Plumbing Code allowed the use of lead pipes until 1975 and tin-lead solder until 1986. Construction before 1960 has been used as a benchmark for use of lead as a service line material and that ‘poor construction practices may have resulted in installation of lead pipes after 1975 and in-fill construction may have used the existing LSL instead of installing a non-lead service line.’”

Homeowners who think they may have a lead drinking water line can call 311. 

About Watered Down

Watered Down, produced by the Calgary Journal, is a follow-up series to 2019’s Tainted Water investigation, which coordinated reporting at universities and media companies from across the country. The investigation found that many Canadian municipalities — including Calgary — were not tackling the issue of lead aggressively.

In Calgary, the Mount Royal University Journalism and Broadcast Media Studies department teamed up with reporters from Global News and the Star Network. Their investigation showed that the drinking water of some Calgary residents exceeded national guidelines for lead. It also found that the City of Calgary did not have complete records of the materials used to construct public water service lines and that the city had not adequately communicated with residents about the risks of lead consumption.

MRU investigative reporters: Noel Harper, Christian Kindrachuk
Faculty advisor/reporter: Janice Paskey
Calgary Journal managing editor: Archie McLean

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Janice Paskey is an associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University