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New fund to help homeowners remove lead pipes

City estimates more than 1,000 homes exceed safe levels in drinking water.

THUNDER BAY – A new fund is set to help Thunder Bay homeowners with the cost of replacing lead water pipes, in an effort to address the issue of contamination in the city's drinking water. The city estimates 8,700 local homes have lead water service connections.

Exposure to the metal is particularly dangerous for children, and can affect brain and nervous system development, among other health impacts. The city began adding sodium hydroxide to drinking water to protect against corrosion of lead pipes about two years ago. That cut the number of local homes exceeding provincial guidelines of 10 micrograms per litre in half. That still leaves over 1,000 homes with unsafe levels, the city estimates.

The new fund, proposed by city councillors Andrew Foulds and Kristen Oliver, will provide financial assistance to homeowners to replace lead pipes and solder. The city is responsible for replacing service lines up to the property line, but after that it becomes the homeowner's responsibility. The work costs about $3,000 for an average homeowner, the city says.

Council approved an amount of $50,000 for the 2020 budget, with city administration to work on a design for the program. Foulds says other Ontario municipalities like Ottawa and Guelph have implemented similar initiatives.

“It’s going to take years and years to solve this problem, there’s no question of that,” the Current River councillor acknowledged, “but I’d like to start somewhere.”

The city has estimated replacing all lead pipes and solder in the city – including those on public and private property – would cost around $80 million. It is currently performing the work as its budget allows, but says there is no provincial or federal funding available to help tackle it more quickly. City staff added that residents can help address the problem with simple water filters costing as little as $40. But the best long-term solution is to replace the pipes, they say.

City staff initially estimated adding the $50,000 program would increase 2020 water rates for residents by 0.23 per cent, though city manager Norm Gale later intervened to say that estimate was uncertain, as consumption levels can change the rates. Administration will provide an updated estimate before council finalizes the budget. The program is expected to emphasize support for homes with children and seniors, as well as being means-tested.