Emotions ran high at times and frustration was evident as about 140 Pembertonians filled the Pemberton and District Community Centre on April 5 for a town hall meeting focused on the village's water.
The meeting was organized to respond to the community's concerns after lead was found in the drinking water in some peoples' homes last month, caused by corrosive, low-pH water reacting with certain plumbing fixtures.
Representatives from the Village of Pemberton (VOP), Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and the Sea to Sky School District (SD48) were on-hand for a question-and-answer session, which took up most of the three-hour meeting.
The questions covered everything from what kind of pipes are in the ground and how the VOP has handled communications of the issue to big-picture solutions and what they might cost.
But the bulk of the queries were related to health concerns, and how VCH has responded to them.
VCH's chief medical officer Dr. Paul Martiquet reiterated at the meeting that he has heard no concerns of lead poisoning in his 25 years of working in the region.
But Pemberton physician Dr. Rebecca Lindley offered a rebuttal to that point.
"If I worked in Kenya, I would test people regularly for malaria, because I know it's an issue there. But when I work in Pemberton and our water is good, I don't think about lead poisoning," Lindley said.
"My level of suspicion now, with this, is completely different. So you're right: There hasn't been any concerns from the physicians of Pemberton or the other caregivers, because we thought it was all good.
"Now, we don't think it's all good, so now I think we have an obligation to the public to do a certain level of testing," she added, to loud applause from the crowd.
Two different Pemberton moms took the microphone to say they had tried to get their families tested, but were refused by their physicians.
The moms said they were told VCH sent a memo to local doctors instructing them not to conduct lead tests based solely on concerns around the water.
Martiquet said the reasoning is that humans are exposed to lead from a variety of sources, and testing for lead won't reveal where the exposure happened.
The testing would also have to be funded by the taxpayer, putting added pressure on the public health system.
Another local physician, Dr. Jim Fuller, said testing some long-term Pemberton residents could go a long way to easing peoples' anxiety.
"I think we should do some tests on long-term residents, and they'll hopefully be normal, and then that will be a robust way of reassuring the community that we're probably all OK, rather than erecting smoke screens and not giving a robust response," Fuller said.
There was also lots of discussion around the local schools, and some concern over a revelation that while Signal Hill Elementary has had flushing protocols in place since a water test found elevated levels of lead in 2003, the flushing is still only done once a week on Monday mornings.
"You're only flushing on Monday mornings? So Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, you're not running the water for the two minutes that's required?" asked Mark Mendonca, Tourism Pemberton president and owner of Grimm's Gourmet and Deli.
SD 48's facilities director Rick Hume confirmed that is the case.
"The expectation is for the school to educate the kids (around flushing the taps)" Hume said, to groans from the crowd.
Mendonca, who has grandchildren who attend the school, asked the district to change its protocol.
"Until we resolve the problem, let's flush every day," he said.
"I don't know how much educating you're going to do on a six year old who asks the teacher to go out and have a drink of water."
Answers to questions around the "big-fix" solution — what it looks like and what it will cost — will have to wait for the time being, said Mayor Mike Richman.
"We're working hard with the engineers (and) in two weeks at our next council meeting we hope to have more information on the type of system we're going to look at," Richman said.
"This is a complex situation. It means putting additives into our water system. It's not a switch that we're going to flick on the wall and now our pH is going to be balanced."
For the town hall meeting, the VOP prepared a timeline of decisions made around water infrastructure spanning from 1962 to present day.
"There's been a lot of changes to the water infrastructure over the years — wells added, reservoirs, looping and chlorination systems — and as those things progressed our engineers and our health partners made recommendations as to... how this added infrastructure might change the water makeup," Richman said.
"Could some of this have been accelerated at certain times? Absolutely. I'm not going to deny that. Moving forward, what we want to do is (figure out) what can we put into place that's going to make things better."
And there will be more community consultation to come as the VOP works its way through the solution, Richman said.
"We're going to ask for more, because this adjustment to your water system will have impacts," he said.
"It's going to change the makeup of your water, it's going to change the taste, and some people might be for it, some people might not, so there are tough decisions to make."
For now, residents are still advised to flush their taps until the water runs cold before consuming it.
Homeowners can also buy individual filtration systems that carry the NSF 53 certification.
Local plumber Robert Szachury floated the idea of trying to get a "bulk buy" supply of filters (which also drew applause from the crowd).
"Maybe they'll give them to us for $300 a piece and we can buy a thousand of them," he said.
"Because it's really simple to get lead out — it's just a matter of putting (a filter) in."
Towards the end of the meeting, Lindley took the mic again and encouraged people to take a deep breath.
"There is nothing to be gained in a witch hunt here, and there's nothing to be gained by any of us panicking," she said.
"Now, by no means am I saying 'don't worry and don't speak up.' That's why we're here... it's about stepping forward as a community and trying to work together, and yes hold people accountable and not let stuff be buried, absolutely.
"But for the good of our community, let's keep being positive and not make a witch hunt or a lawsuit or anything like that. That's not what this town is about."
Presentation materials, including poster boards prepared by the VOP and audio recordings from the town hall, will be posted to the VOP's website.
For more on Pemberton's water, head to www.pemberton.ca/residents/health-and-environment/pemberton-water.
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