Concerned Pemberton residents crowded into the Village of Pemberton's regular council meeting March 15 to demand answers about lead-contaminated water, in some cases going so far as to call for resignations.
"Why was the one thing that everybody in this community needs to survive put down the ladder?" asked Garth Phare, president of the Pemberton and District Chamber of Commerce, referring to the Village's perceived failure to address water concerns that have been on the table for over a decade.
"Somebody has to be responsible, to step up and take it on the chin. I'm sorry. That's just the way it works."
The Village of Pemberton (VOP) has known of its corrosive, low-pH water for more than a decade — its own consultant in 2006, EarthTech, pointed it out in a memo dated Oct.19 of that year.
On March 9, 2016 the VOP discovered lead in the drinking water of some peoples' homes, caused by the corrosive water reacting with certain plumbing fixtures.
Resident Cindy Filipenko is also calling for the resignations of senior staff.
"I feel the public trust has been broken," Filipenko said at the meeting.
"Can anyone at that table explain why we went through nine years of inaction that has led to thousands of dollars in plumbing repairs for the people of this community, and now a potential health issue?"
Mayor Mike Richman, first elected to council in 2011, responded by saying the VOP is also looking for some answers.
"Staff is currently going through reports and council resolutions. We're looking back into the history to understand what didn't get followed up on," Richman said.
"I know there was lots of discussion at the time that with the implementation of the new well and the chlorination process, that might take care of the problem. Should it have been followed up on? Could this have been taken care of nine years ago? Absolutely. And I agree."
But the important thing right now is ensuring people have all the information they need and fixing the root of the problem, Richman said.
"I would prefer focusing our limited resources on how to communicate, how to deal with the problem, how to get our water at a higher quality level and to supply people with the water that they deserve as fast as we can," he said.
At the same time, the VOP's water is tested routinely at the source and the supply falls within the acceptable guidelines for drinking water, Richman noted.
It was in trying to fix the low-pH problem that the VOP discovered the lead in the first place.
To determine the best system for fixing the corrosion issue, the VOP tested the drinking water of 20 homes — 17 in the VOP and three in Pemberton North — 12 of them came back with elevated lead levels.
In some cases, lead concentrations were as high as six times the Maximum Acceptable Concentration prescribed in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.
Lead in drinking water can cause a number of adverse health effects, particularly for children, infants and unborn children.
Now MLA for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, Pemberton resident Jordan Sturdy was mayor of the town when the issue first arose in 2006.
Reached by phone on March 12, he said it was the first he's ever heard of lead in the water of some homes and buildings.
"Lead had never been something, certainly in the municipal water supply, that had ever been raised as an issue at all," Sturdy said.
He added that there was a plan to treat the low pH with soda ash, but when Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) required the VOP to add chlorine to the system, it was believed that would raise the pH.
Current councillor Jennie Helmer was also on council at that time, and at the March 15 meeting this week said she remembered it coming up, but couldn't say why the problem remained unfixed.
"A second well came on and the water got chlorinated, which is what we were advised to do, and that's what we did. I think that that wasn't good enough," Helmer said.
"And in terms of taking it on the chin... I was here. I'd be happy to take it on the chin," she added.
"I didn't live up to what I said maybe I would do, and if you choose to do that, I encourage you to. Or, just trust that we're going to work through this and make it happen."
FLUSH YOUR WATER UNTIL COLD BEFORE DRINKING
VCH isn't recommending people stop using the water, but rather to flush their pipes before consuming it.
Dr. Paul Martiquet, chief medical officer for VCH's rural regions, said he recommends letting the water run for two minutes.
Once the water runs cold the lead content drops to close to zero, Martiquet said.
The water should not be boiled without flushing it first, as that increases the lead content, but it is safe to shower, bathe or wash dishes, Martiquet said.
Asked what the message is for concerned citizens and parents in Pemberton, Martiquet said it's important to put it into perspective.
"Simply put, the exposure isn't at a high enough risk to have caused any health concerns, but it's still something we've got to pay attention to," Martiquet said.
"The concern would be chronic exposure, and we're not dealing with any incidents of chronic exposure, nor have their been physicians — and I've been at it for 25 years — that have called me concerned with any lead toxicity (or) lead poisoning."
FINDING A SOLUTION
A second round of water testing was underway as Pique went to press.
The VOP expects the results back "either late this week or early next week," said Richman.
From there, the village will move ahead with finding a long-term fix to the low-pH problem.
The village has budgeted $25,000 this year for the engineering costs, but it's unclear what the total price tag of the project will be.
"That's something that we put in motion in 2015, and that's how we got here in the first place," Richman said.
"And so we're carrying on full speed ahead in that, and we'll have a timeline pretty soon in terms of when we'll be able to implement the new system."
CORROSION ISSUES NOTHING NEW
Mark Mendonca, president of Tourism Pemberton and owner of Grimm's Gourmet and Deli, said complaints about the water have fallen on deaf ears for years.
"I've been complaining about it for quite some time now and nobody's been listening. I've got a little commercial business and I don't know how many elbow (pipe fittings) I've changed," Mendonca said in a March 12 phone call.
From a tourism standpoint, it's too early to say if the problem will affect visitor numbers, but "I would imagine it's going to have some sort of impact on us," Mendonca said.
In an email he said from now on he would be throwing out the first thermos of coffee from his direct line installed machines.
Over at the Pemberton Valley Lodge, owner David MacKenzie said he has spent over $200,000 in the past 10 years due to Pemberton's aggressive water.
"It's been a nightmare," MacKenzie said on March 12.
"When I first opened the lodge in 2004, I had no idea about the aggressiveness of the water, and I learned that the hard way because two years into the operation I was replacing a hot water tank."
MacKenzie has looked at several treatment solutions for the lodge, but said he hasn't been able to nail one down yet, "because we were kind of always promised that something was happening with the village. They had acquired a new well, there was going to be some treatment going on or some way of addressing the pH levels," he said.
"I pointed it out to the health department on several occasions and they kind of assured me that well, you know, the village is working on it."
At RONA Pemberton Valley Hardware — which Phare co-owns — things like hot water tanks, plumbing supplies and drywall have been flying off the shelves for years.
Even though Phare benefits from those sales, he wants to see the problem corrected.
"In some cases it's been life altering, because people have had to go out and re-mortgage and find ways to cover some of the expenses that weren't covered by insurance," Phare said, in a phone call following the March 15 meeting.
"And that to me, it's always been alarming. You've got to look at it in all ways, not just from the profitable end. There's a part of us that has to regard our conscience and how our community members are having to deal with this.
"And if we find out that it's not a very expensive fix, (that's) all the more salt in the wound."
QUESTIONS OF ACCOUNTABILITY REMAIN
In an open letter to mayor and council dated March 13, Pemberton resident and public engagement strategist Maureen Douglas equated the failure to address the corrosive nature of the water as "negligence, plain and simple."
"The situation we find ourselves in is deeply troubling," the letter reads in part. "Water is a basic human right and arguably the most important service that a local government provides its citizens. Senior members of VOP's current administration have been there for more than 10 years. They have known of this issue, heard the community's concerns and done nothing."
Douglas also takes issue with how the VOP handled communication of the difficult issue to the public.
"The accountability has been a challenge for quite some time, and this is the ultimate motherhood issue: Water," Douglas said in a March 14 phone call.
"If we can't get accountability on water then we're really screwed."
More information on Pemberton's water can be found at www.pemberton.ca/residents/health-and-environment/pemberton-water.
Questions can be directed to 604-894-6135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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