It’s been one year since a national collaborative investigation between universities and media organizations uncovered the extent to which lead is found in the drinking water of Canadian municipalities — including Calgary.
Lead is a known neurotoxin that can affect every organ system in the body, and there is no known safe level of consumption. It is especially harmful to children and pregnant women, and “is associated with a reduction in IQ scores, shortened attention spans and potentially violent and even criminal behavior later in life,” according to a 2020 UNICEF study.
The City of Calgary states that its drinking water is clean and safe, and that “only 550 homes” in the city have public lead service lines (LSLs) — city-owned pipes that connect homes to municipal water mains.
But, since the Tainted Water series was published in 2019, concerns from residents and the work of two Calgary councillors moved the issue forward towards action on the city’s part.
Below is a timeline of response from both the municipal and provincial governments in the wake of the investigation.
Dec. 3, 2019
Calgary City Councillors Druh Farrell and Jeromy Farkas sponsored a notice of motion asking city administration to prepare a report on the accelerated removal of lead water pipes from both public and private properties.
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.
The motion followed a report from the Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ) and a team of Mount Royal University journalism students — in collaboration with Global News and the Toronto Star — which found that the city could replace its remaining LSLs for an estimated $11 million. City council approved the motion on Dec. 16.
May 14, 2020
Alberta Environment and Parks issued a new guidance document requiring utilities in the province to report on LSLs on a yearly basis.
These reporting obligations include “programs to monitor for lead in the distribution system and at customer taps, identify LSLs, financial planning to fund LSL replacement and overall program results.”
The City of Calgary revised its public-facing web page titled ‘Lead and Water Service Lines.’ The page breaks down all known LSLs in the city by community, describes the difference between public and private service lines and emphasizes that Calgary’s water is safe. “Old pipes are the problem, not our drinking water,” it reads in part.
The city also published a new searchable Public Water Service Lines database, identifying the material that public water lines are made from. The data is also viewable within an interactive, colour-coded map.
The office of the chief medical officer of health stamped the provincial government’s previous lead guidance package — published in 2013 — as ‘Out of Date.’
Upon request, the City of Calgary provided Mount Royal University journalists with a community map, showing hundreds of city-owned residential water lines of unknown materials.
The city set 2020 as a target date to identify all unknown water line materials for homes built before 1950.
Oct. 5, 2020
Council passed “Calgary’s Accelerated Lead Service Pipe Removal and Mitigation Plan” to replace the city’s remaining LSLs over three years, with a goal of completing this work by 2023.
The plan will be financed through cost-sharing — $14 million will come from the city, with the remaining $2.5 million paid by property owners through utility rates.
The bulk of work on the accelerated lead service removal plan, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will take place throughout the next year. A total of 20 LSLs were replaced by the city in 2020.
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.
The Tainted Water investigation is nominated for the Michener Award, Canada’s top journalism prize dedicated to “meritorious public service journalism.”
MRU investigative reporters: Noel Harper, Christian Kindrachuk
Faculty advisor/reporter: Janice Paskey
Calgary Journal managing editor: Archie McLean