A public information session on the health impacts of heavy metals and pesticides in drinking water drew just over 100 people to the Centennial Arena meeting hall Thursday evening.
And, according to organizer Ross Buchanan, it revealed not only concerns about the city’s water, but also a high level of anger and distrust among some residents toward the city administration.
City engineer Jim Gordon encountered much of it, Buchanan told Peace Arch News, when he appeared informally during the question period, following the talk by Dr. Bruce Lanphear, professor for the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University,
Buchanan said Lanphear was clear in expressing his theme at the meeting – sponsored by the citizen-formed White Rock Lead, Arsenic and Manganese Working Group – that with prolonged exposure to heavy metals and pesticides, even a little bit is too much.
“The science shows that, when it comes to arsenic and lead, there are no safe levels,” Buchanan said. “Efforts to simply lower the levels are misplaced and contaminated sources should be eliminated to protect public health.”
In that context, Gordon’s remarks – underlining the administration opinion that city water is safe and meeting legal requirements under Health Canada standards – were poorly judged, Buchanan suggested.
“People just shut down to being talked down to and lectured by the city staff,” he said.
“We were talking about public health. A leading authority, an MD with a MPH who is often quoted internationally on the topic of heavy metal contamination of drinking water had just said there is no such thing as a safe level for arsenic and lead in drinking water.”
In an email to PAN on Monday, however, Gordon indicated that he did not take away a sense that the meeting had been confrontational.
“While not everyone shared my opinion about the good quality of White Rock water,” he commented, “I thought those attending the meeting were respectful.”
Some residents had requested the city test their water, he said, adding the city has been testing residents’ water on request for some time and will continue to do so.
“The tests to date, both in the system and from private taps, support the premise that White Rock has good quality water,” he added, noting that the Oxford Water Treatment Plant, currently under construction, will “further improve this water quality by lowering arsenic and manganese levels.”
But Buchanan said that, due to continuing controversy, some White Rock residents are “way past” looking at water test results that show the city meeting guidelines set by Health Canada or legal requirements set by Fraser Health.
“(There is an) absence of any trust that the city is acting in the best interest of the public. Rather than spending $14 million on the (arsenic and manganese) decontamination plant – (even) if they were spending $14 billion – it still wouldn’t matter.”
Buchanan noted that Gordon had yet to respond to a letter in which he asked when the city would implement a pesticides study of White Rock water.
“It appears that they did not do a pesticide study as part of their due diligence when purchasing (the water utility from Epcor), he said.
“The Aquifer Protection Plan’s major recommendation is a pesticide study…with an emphasis on the agricultural lands to the east of White Rock, which are directly above the aquifer,” he pointed out.
There are up to 53 chemicals used in the blueberry industry and many of them contain significant levels of arsenic and lead in their formulations, Buchanan said.
“The arsenic and lead can percolate through the soil and contaminate the aquifer, later showing up as toxins at our taps.”
Gordon said in his email that he would be responding to Buchanan “shortly.”
He said staff would be following up on mitigation measures for a number of risks expressed in a June 25 report to council on the Aquifer Protection Plan.
That report said that groundwater hazards to the aquifer (such as through agricultural land use to the east of the city) have been assessed as “low to moderate risk,” but concluded that city actions would have to be part of a recommended “broader, regional approach for aquifer protection…given that the aquifer and well protection areas extend beyond the municipal boundaries of the city.”
While Buchanan emphasized that last Thursday’s session was focused on the hidden dangers of water that appears innocuously clear – hewing to the group’s continuing theme that the city would do better connecting with Metro Vancouver water rather than continuing to run the aging, well-supplied system – he did elicit gasps from the crowd with a recent sample of discoloured White Rock water.
The sample, which appears almost black, was collected from the tap of a resident at Pacific Terrace on Aug. 16.
Buchanan, who had it independently tested, said it contained a lead level of 1.45 mg-per-litre (145 times the maximum allowable concentration or MAC), an arsenic level of 0.07 mg-per-litre (seven times the MAC), plus high levels of aluminum and copper and – largely contributing to the discolouration – a staggering manganese level of 31.2 mg-per-litre (calculated as 624 times the aesthetic objective).
Asked what could have caused such a result, when regular city metal water testing results show manganese just above the guideline limits – and arsenic, lead and copper consistently below them – city utilities manager Saad Jasim said Friday that it was likely that uptown construction work was a factor in dislodging deposits in building plumbing.
“Some of the spikes are because of development work – we had a situation two weeks ago in which one of the contractors shut down a valve and cut a pipe and replaced it without our knowledge,” he said.
“That would have created a big surge in water pressure,” he added.
“Nobody is supposed to operate a valve or hydrant without our presence. Unfortunately, if you’re not experienced, you can make a huge change in the flow and pressure in the system.”
Jasim added that problems are also more noticeable when people have been away and taps have not been operated for some days.
“We tell them to run the taps for a while and this flushes it out,” he said, adding that staff are always prepared to do in-residence testing – usually the same day – when there is a complaint about water quality.
“We will come out and collect a sample, and we test it and provide the results to the resident – and our staff are certified operators and the vials we use are provided to us by certified labs.”