West Saint John class-action lawsuit moves forward over leaky water source change

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A New Brunswick court in Saint John has approved a class-action lawsuit that allows residents of West Saint John to challenge the City in court over the fallout from a 2017 water source change that they say caused unexpected corrosion and leaking in copper pipes.

Shortly after the water source change, approximately 4% of the 5,400 West Saint John customers reported leaking pipes, water damage and failed water heaters within a three to four-week period.

The City changed the water source in order to meet Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality and protect against waterborne disease. Officials say they switched the water source from Spruce Lake to the South Bay Wellfield, which consists of three groundwater wells commissioned over 2013- 2014.

In a backgrounder on the issue, a CBCL consultant’s report states that from a treatment standpoint, “the groundwater source has a substantial decrease in colour and organic matter compared to the Spruce Lake supply, and an increase in mineral content.” Based on water quality parameters from the new wellfield, the report states that neither corrosion inhibitors nor pH adjustment were a part of the new system, only chlorine treatment.

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The class action lawsuit alleges that the City was negligent when it changed the water supply and exposed West Saint John property owners’ pipes to damage such as mineral descaling. The changeover, the litigants claim, has hit their pocketbooks hard.

“This change in water supply and/or water pressure exposed water pipes, appliances, and equipment to that distinct chemistry, causing widespread failure,” the litigants allege on their class-action website.

The consultant’s corrosion control investigation report submitted to council in February 2019 followed over 200 complaints of leaking pipes and a series of volatile public meetings. The report concluded that what happened in West Saint John would not have been among the “anticipated outcomes” of the water changeover; however, several findings were reported. Among them were:

  1. It is likely that when the switch from surface to groundwater took place, the scale existing in the pipes was disrupted before a new scale could be developed.
  2. When the existing scale was disrupted the corroded pipe in the system was exposed and leaks began to occur and this was a short-term transition.
  3. The scale that formed in the copper pipes removed from private citizens’ homes and analyzed is largely amorphous (no distinct, identifiable crystalline structure).

The investigation also found that orthophosphate was the “only statistically significant predictor of copper release.” Study authors recommended that the City of Saint John install a temporary orthophosphate treatment system at the South Bay Water Treatment Facility (formerly the Spruce Lake Water Treatment Facility) to assist in stabilizing the existing scale formation on copper pipes.

The City of Saint John released a statement in February 2018 to address residents’ concerns. Officials said they were addressing three issues: 1. The hardness of the water and customers’ related individual preferences. 2. The safety of the water to meet federally- and provincially-regulated parameters. 3. The phenomenon of the leaking copper pipes.

The City of Saint John has also been documenting aspects of the water issue on a dedicated web page.

In February of 2018, the commissioner of Saint John Water, Brent McGovern, led a presentation on the West Saint John issues that can be watched here.

Officials say no new leaks have been reported since June of last year. None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been proven in court.

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