Thunder Bay offers loans for lead pipe replacement as COVID-19 backlogs water testing

Lead pipes
City of Thunder Bay officials estimate that about 8,700 properties have lead service pipes. Credit: Adobe Stock

The northern Ontario City of Thunder Bay has approved an interest-free loan program for property owners to replace privately-owned water service pipes made of lead. However, determining exact levels at each household has had to be suspended under the pandemic.

City officials estimate that Thunder Bay has about 8,700 properties that have lead service pipes. While the cost of removing a lead service pipe on private property depends on a number of factors, including the length of the pipe, city officials estimate that the average replacement is going to cost about $3,000 per property.

“Changing the lead on their side will benefit the next household owner, and the next one, so there will be generations of households that will benefit from this program,” Councillor Andrew Foulds told city council at its June 22 meeting. “We’ll see where it goes in terms of the success,” said Foulds, adding they may need to move to a grant or rebate program if uptakes are low. About 300 properties would initially be able to partake in the loan program.

Michelle Warywoda, Director of Thunder’s Bay Environment Division, said she’s already received residential expressions of interest around the loan program.

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Each year, the City of Thunder Bay sends more than 2,400 water samples to an independent laboratory to be monitored for potential contaminants. However, Warywoda noted that there is a significant backlog in testing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some councillors expressed concern over somebody perhaps replacing pipes that didn’t in fact need replacement.

“It’s been difficult to go into the homes, but we are looking at starting that service again,” Warywoda told city council. “The homes may have the same length of pipe, but it doesn’t mean they have the same lead level at the tap.”

The city has uploaded applications that allow for loans of up to $3,000 of eligible costs for five years or 10 years for property owners. Warywoda noted that they must first qualify under the Tax and Credit Program for Low-Income Seniors and Low-Income Persons with Disabilities or the Tax and Water Credit Program for Low-Income Persons.

Thunder Bay customers with lead pipes have also been provided with an 11 cup Ultimate Pitcher Filtration System and six replacement filters, according to an infrastructure and operations report bought before the June 22 meeting of Thunder Bay’s city council. The filtration system is certified to reduce lead in tap water and should be used for drinking, cooking and preparing baby formula.

The move to the loan program to replace lead pipes follows the city’s 2018 efforts to add sodium hydroxide to the water supply as a corrosion inhibitor to drop lead levels in drinking water. As a result of regulatory changes in Ontario (accordance with Drinking Water System Regulation O. Reg. 170/03), the City was mandated to implement a corrosion control plan to reduce lead levels at the tap.

Following a spike in reports of pinhole leaks in pipes after they introduced sodium hydroxide, the city began to phase out the additive ahead of schedule.

Due to increasing concerns over health impacts from lead, in March 2019 Health Canada published a more stringent guideline of 5 parts per billion (ppb) for lead in drinking water compared to the previous guideline of 10 ppb.

Earlier in 2020, councillors approved $50,000 to cover administrative costs for the new program. Councillors said they may double the amount to $100,000 depending on the program’s uptake.

Hamilton, Guelph and Ottawa offer similar loan or rebate programs for lead pipe replacement.

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