Perched on a rocky shoreline near the tip of British Columbia’s blustery northwest coast is Metlakatla First Nation, a Tsimshian (or Ts’msyen) village of around 120 people. It’s an ancient site, with Tsimshian ancestry there stretching back at least 5,500 years.
Fifteen minutes away by ferry, the port city of Prince Rupert is nestled at the base of two small mountains at the edge of the lush Great Bear Rainforest. Thick clouds obscure their summits and brush the tips of cedar trees. The ocean channel between Metlakatla and Prince Rupert churns with a deep blue-black colour, and low tide reveals sandy beaches, kelp, and shellfish.
It’s one of the rainiest areas in Canada. And with the exception of the cargo ships that dock at Prince Rupert’s busy port and some industrial development along the shoreline, the environment appears rugged and clean.
But the climate poses risks for drinking water.
In fact, some of Prince Rupert’s 12,000 residents are drinking water that contains elevated levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin. That’s the finding of a year-long investigation by reporters representing a national consortium of universities and media companies, including Canada's National Observer, Global News, the Toronto Star and Star Vancouver, and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
Prince Rupert and Metlakatla draw their water from different lakes, both replenished by frequent rainfall. That rainfall makes the surface water more acidic. In turn, acidic water with a low pH level can corrode older metal plumbing materials, such as pipes, faucets, and solder. The lower the pH, the higher the risk that lead could leach out of the plumbing and into drinking water.
We visited Prince Rupert and Metlakatla and found out that their raw water might be similar, but so far, these neighbours have taken different approaches to mitigating the risks of corrosion and lead leaching.
And sampling results indicate that both communities may need to increase monitoring to identify which homes and taps are most likely to produce elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.
‘Water treatment is 24 hours a day’
Prince Rupert treats its water with chlorine alone. With financial support from the B.C. and federal governments, the community is investing in a new, “state of the art” water treatment facility, which the city said will “help address the coastal issue of low pH and subsequent lead leaching in private plumbing infrastructure.”
In the meantime, the city has yet to take steps to rein in the acidity of its water and control corrosion. And the vast majority of homes in Prince Rupert were built before B.C. restricted the use of lead in plumbing in 1989.
These factors combined are risky enough that 21 of 25 Prince Rupert homes sampled as part of this investigation, in different neighbourhoods across the city, produced drinking water that contained lead levels that exceeded Health Canada’s recommended maximum allowable concentration (MAC) of 5 parts per billion (ppb). The samples were taken following a stagnation period of six hours and analyzed by an accredited lab.
By contrast, Metlakatla treats its water with limestone in order to raise the pH level. The treatment facility was designed specifically with corrosion control in mind and began operating in 1994.
Plus, the nation upgraded the service lines that deliver water to homes in 1995, according to water operator Dallas Leighton. Service lines are the pipes that connect buildings to a larger water main. That means Metlakatla updated its distribution system six years after B.C. restricted lead in solder and thirty years after the federal government banned lead pipes in 1975.
We took the 15-minute ferry ride from Prince Rupert over to Metlakatla to find out how their water treatment system is working.
Dallas Leighton greeted us at the dock.
“When the phone rings and it’s water, my life stops,” he said.
“I don’t care if I’m getting a phone call at 8 o’clock at night,” Leighton added. “Water treatment is 24 hours a day.”
Leighton started out as the nation’s sole water operator and maintenance supervisor around a decade ago, and he’s currently training two new personnel.
We piled into a pickup truck and drove from the water treatment facility at one end of the nation to the wastewater treatment ponds at the other. Leighton pointed out the daycare, band office, waste disposal area and several new housing developments along the way.
For Leighton, drinking the water in Metlakatla is a source of pride.
Leighton works in Metlakatla but lives in Prince Rupert, in an older neighbourhood. There, he buys bottled water.
“When you work in water treatment you’ve got a pretty good idea (as) opposed to most people about how the water should taste and smell,” Leighton said, referring to the yellow-brown colour that often tinges Prince Rupert’s drinking water, signalling a high level of organic matter.
Indeed, Prince Rupert was placed under a boil water advisory for six weeks last winter due to bacterial contamination, as reported by Shannon Lough at The Northern View.
“I won’t drink the water there,” Leighton said.
No safe level of lead
There are no publicly-owned lead service lines that connect water mains to buildings in Prince Rupert, according to city officials. But with an acidic pH as low as 5.6 in the last year, the city’s water can eat away at plumbing inside homes, such as copper pipes with lead solder.
“Having the water at 5.6 would be unheard of in America,” said Virginia Tech environmental and water resources engineering professor Marc Edwards, referring to stricter regulations for corrosion control in the U.S.
Edwards was at the vanguard during the water crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2014 and 2015, where testing revealed that children’s blood lead levels increased after the city switched to a corrosive water source.
“We have to do everything in our power to reduce the lead exposure. There’s no fixing the harm that’s done. And drinking water’s probably the last source of lead that’s been relatively uncontrolled,” said Edwards.
Common corrosion control measures include adjusting the pH or alkalinity of drinking water by adding substances such as soda ash or lime, as well as corrosion inhibitors such as orthophosphate.
When asked why Prince Rupert has yet to implement corrosion control, the city’s communications manager Veronika Stewart said officials consulted with Northern Health and decided to focus on securing funding for the new treatment plant, “rather than ad hoc improvements.”
Health Canada recognizes that raising the pH level is “one of the most effective methods for minimizing lead” in drinking water. But these are guidelines, not requirements. It’s up to each province or territory to enforce the federal guidelines.
B.C. restricted lead in plumbing thirty years ago, but metal used to manufacture drinking water taps could contain up to eight per cent lead until 2014, and the province does not require corrosion control in communities with acidic water. Along with most other Canadian provinces, there is also no mandated testing for lead at residential taps.
As part of this investigation, reporters collected 260 water samples from mostly older homes in more than 30 cities and towns across Canada. Results showed that 39 per cent of samples exceeded the federal guideline after the plumbing had not been used for at least six hours, which means lead can leach and build up in the stagnant water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses this “first draw” protocol to assess regulatory compliance for lead and to capture a “worst case scenario.” In other words, it’s the highest likely level of lead a resident may be exposed to during routine household use, such as pouring a glass of water first thing in the morning.
This method of testing for regulatory compliance is recognized by Health Canada and used by several major cities across Canada, from Saskatoon to Halifax.
Of the 21 Prince Rupert homes reporters tested that showed lead levels above Health Canada’s guideline after the water had been sitting overnight, four homes continued to show lead levels above 5 ppb after the pipes had been flushed for 45 seconds and some others showed slightly lower lead levels.
The City of Prince Rupert conducted its own water quality tests in 65 homes this summer in conjunction with the Northern Health Authority. Forty-one of these homes produced drinking water that exceeded Health Canada’s 5 ppb MAC for lead on the first draw after a six-hour period of stagnancy.
In response, the city encouraged residents to regularly flush their pipes to clear out stagnant water until plumbing components containing lead can be replaced, if possible.
The city said these first draw levels are not representative of the water flowing from taps throughout the day, and pointed to B.C.’s interim guidelines for lead in drinking water. Sampling after six hours of stagnation is not representative of “typical concentrations,” and the results should not be used to assess health risks, according to the guidelines. At the household level, the province recommends sampling after 30 minutes of stagnation.
But Health Canada’s own guidelines note that this method of testing “has a tendency to underestimate lead exposure.”
The World Health Organization says that there is “no safe level” of lead, and Health Canada advises that lead levels in drinking water “should be kept as low as reasonably achievable,” since “current science cannot identify a level under which lead is no longer associated with adverse health effects.”
Babies, children, pregnant women and fetuses are most vulnerable to the potential health effects of long-term lead exposure, which range from lower IQ in children to hypertension and kidney problems in adults.
Raina Fumerton, a public health officer in the region, suggested that members of the public shouldn’t be concerned about some of the lead detected, even after the taps were flushed. She also said that she drinks the water in Prince Rupert.
“Ideally, in public health, you’d love to get everything to zero,” said Fumerton in an interview. “It’s just not achievable in 100 per cent of the cases. So, again, our approach is to get things as low as reasonably achievable and, if flushing after two minutes gets the levels from, I would imagine what were probably quite high, down to a level that is below the Health Canada guidelines, then yes. I’m comfortable with that.”
Poisoning from very high levels of lead is rare in North America, said Bruce Lanphear, a professor in Simon Fraser University’s health sciences department and an expert in environmental neurotoxins, including lead.
But chronic exposure to lower levels of lead is “insidious,” he said, and in some cases the effects may be compounded by exposure to other toxic substances, such as tobacco smoke.
“We don’t see it unless we test children. We don’t see that they might be lead poisoned. Although later in life, like when they start school, the teacher and the parents may recognize that the kids are really struggling,” said Lanphear, noting that lead exposure can lead to “acting-out” behaviour and learning difficulties.
Despite the health risks, B.C. does not require water suppliers to test water at the tap in private residences, contrary to federal recommendations, which, remember, are guidelines rather than requirements.
In a July 2019 report, B.C.’s auditor general Carol Bellringer expressed “grave” concerns about the province’s accountability measures around drinking water protection.
The report notes that B.C.’s health ministry and provincial health officer provide guidelines for mitigating lead leaching, but they were too new for the auditor general’s report to evaluate.
“Producing the guidance is good,” said Bellringer in an interview. “But ensuring its effectiveness is critical.”
Testing for lead at the tap
Metlakatla pumps untreated water from a nearby lake through a multi-stage treatment system that cost $1.3 million. It was designed specifically for operation in a small, remote community, according to Kerr Wood Leidal, the engineering firm behind the facility.
The treatment processes include dosing with chlorine, slow sand filtration to remove particulates, and limestone contactors. The water passes through crushed limestone, which dissolves, boosting alkalinity and pH levels and, in turn, helping to mitigate the risk of corrosion.
Every day, Leighton monitors the pH, turbidity and other characteristics of Metlakatla’s water. The nation upgraded the treatment plant’s existing limestone this summer, and Leighton said the water’s alkalinity has “never been better,” with a pH level around 7.5.
That said, the technical document for pH level associated with Health Canada’s drinking water quality guidelines notes that “the lowest levels of lead at the tap are associated with pH levels above eight,” which means testing at residential taps is important even when steps have been taken to control corrosion.
Metlakatla’s water is also tested regularly for bacterial contamination, and as part of this investigation Leighton collected two extra samples for lead tests in January. But lead tests at the tap are not part of Leighton’s or the First Nations Health Authority’s typical monitoring activities.
The sample from the tap at Metlakatla’s school and daycare centre revealed 0.29 ppb of lead, well below Health Canada’s guideline, after six hours of stagnation.
However, even in a proactive nation like Metlakatla, lead leaching from old plumbing infrastructure inside homes can be an insidious problem.
A sample taken from a home near the end of Metlakatla’s water distribution system contained lead at nearly 33 ppb, more than six times Health Canada’s guideline. The home had been unoccupied for at least seven years, said Leighton, leaving the water to stagnate and eat away any plumbing materials that contain lead.
Now, a young family is moving in. The pipes have been flushed, but it’s a short term measure until Leighton and his team test water from the taps of every home in Metlakatla and determine the necessary upgrades.
“Pretty soon we’re going to actually start testing every home,” said Leighton. “It’s just something we have to do.”
In addition to upgrading the nation’s service lines in 1995, Metlakatla has also updated the plumbing inside buildings owned by the nation. The band owns around 40 percent of the Metlakatla’s 56 homes, said Leighton, and several new triplexes and housing units for elders have new PVC (plastic) pipes.
“We’re not going to stop at our band (owned) homes,” added Leighton, who plans to reach out to band members who own their homes on the reserve to make sure people are aware of their plumbing and water quality.
The First Nations Health Authority also conducts limited lead testing in homes on a case-by-case basis, usually when a resident expresses concern, said Sylvia Struck, the manager of the FNHA’s drinking water safety program. And in 2017, the FNHA tested the drinking water in all school and daycare facilities on reserves across B.C. Of 240 sampled, 34 exceeded Health Canada’s previous 10 ppb MAC for lead in drinking water.
More recently, the FNHA concluded random daytime sampling for lead and copper in schools and daycares using the new MAC of 5 ppb, the results of which the health authority said are currently being analyzed.
The health authority is looking to broaden its testing at residential taps, starting with neighbourhoods that have developed around older schools, said Struck, but the process to identify higher risk homes and broaden the sampling program has not yet begun.
Lead is ‘one part of that puzzle’ when it comes to on-reserve water and housing
Metlakatla is taking steps to mitigate lead in its drinking water through the nation’s water treatment facility and upgrading infrastructure. The Metlakatla Development Corporation (MDC), the nation’s business arm, has numerous ventures in the Prince Rupert region. Every year, MDC transfers funds to the nation’s governing council. In 2017, $211,000 went to infrastructure development and capacity, according to a 2018 study of the corporation’s economic impacts.
Metlakatla’s governing council has also authorized the MDC to negotiate impact benefit agreements with liquid natural gas (LNG) companies seeking to operate in Metlakatla’s territory, and the nation said some initial funds have supported community improvements, including a health centre.
But it’s clear that not all 634 First Nations in Canada have the means to take similar steps to mitigate lead.
As of last month, there are 57 long-term boil water advisories on reserves across Canada. Plus, many nations contend with pervasive black mould and other health risks stemming from poor housing conditions.
A 2017 report by Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer used data from an assessment of 571 participating First Nations conducted between 2009 and 2011 to estimate the cost of updating drinking water systems on reserves.
The officer found it would cost $1.8 billion to update more than 800 systems on 560 reserves.
With so many pressing concerns, it’s hard for some First Nations to devote time and resources to assessing and mitigating long-term lead exposure, according to Kerry Black, an engineering professor at the University of Calgary who also works with the B.C. First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council.
Federally-subsidized homes comprise the majority of on-reserve homes and, historically, they have been poorly constructed with little oversight, Black said.
“For years, First Nations were limited in their ability to use their own consultants, and because of a lack of federal oversight and a lack of understanding of communities, consultants and contractors could cut corners. They're coming in, building these homes and leaving.”
“Lead is just one part of that puzzle of a huge infrastructure issue as a First Nations community,” she added.
There is also no centralized data for housing on reserves. Indigenous Services Canada doesn’t keep track of the age, current condition or construction materials of homes, and small communities often don’t have the resources to develop their own data, said Black.
What’s more, Canada’s assessment of First Nations water systems between 2009 and 2011 did not include the materials, components, and condition of buried water distribution infrastructure, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada confirmed in an email.
Given these risk factors, Leighton, the water operator, hopes Metlakatla’s water treatment facility could serve as an example for what’s possible in other communities with the right funding. Indeed, several other nations on B.C.’s northwest coast, including Lax Kw'alaams and the Heiltsuk Nation (Bella Bella) have built treatment plants based on Metlakatla’s.
“There’s no reason that any First Nations or anybody in the country should be without safe drinking water,” said Leighton.
— with files from Lauren Donnelly and Stephanie Wood
Tainted Water Credits
Faculty Supervisor: Charles Berret, University of British Columbia, Graduate School of Journalism
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University:
Series Producer: Patti Sonntag
Research Coordinator: Michael Wrobel
Project Coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Investigative Reporting Fellow: Lauren Donnelly
Institutional Credits: University of British Columbia, Graduate School of Journalism
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of Tainted Water series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.