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Lillooet attempts to turn off water complaints

There have been days this year when Lillooet's tap water has double the amount of arsenic that's considered safe for human consumption.

Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun Columnist, August 23, 2010

There have been days this year when Lillooet's tap water has double the amount of arsenic that's considered safe for human consumption.

Almost every day, the arsenic concentration in water pumped from one of the district's three wells has at least twice the maximum allowed. The guideline is 10 micrograms per litre, which means that the risk of getting an arsenic-related cancer is one in 100,000. Double the concentration and the risk is two in 100,000.

But even at that level, some health scientists believe no amount of arsenic is safe for humans and that ingesting any arsenic puts humans at risk of gastro-intestinal upset and skin problems in the short term and cancer in the long term.

"The guideline is probably not as low as some people would like it to be," says Dr. Paul Hasselback of the Interior Health Authority, which oversees water delivery systems throughout the region. But, he says, the guideline recognizes the health risks, but also "what's technically feasible."

And 10 micrograms per litre is not always technically feasible in Lillooet and several other Interior communities where arsenic occurs naturally because of the geology. They are among the few in Canada that can't consistently meet the arsenic standard, and Lillooet is the worst.

Another 520 or so B.C. communities fail to meet other national standards. Some of B.C.'s 3,500 water systems have had boil-water notices in place for two decades or more. People in Dodge Cove near Prince Rupert, for example, have been boiling their drinking water since March 31, 1988.

So far, Lillooet residents have been the most aggressive in hounding local politicians at the city, district, provincial and federal levels to find a speedy solution to their water problem. For their trouble, the most outspoken have been badmouthed and even sued by politicians.

"We get treated like garbage because we care," Anne-Marie Anderson said through tears last week.

She and other members of the Lillooet Ratepayers Association have provoked city council into trying to silence them.

On Sept. 1, council will decide whether to approve a bylaw making it illegal to post any signs or posters without a permit and illegal to meet in public without a permit whether it's for a political meeting or a picnic.

While the heavy-handed (and likely unconstitutional) bylaw is inexcusable, it's definitely easier and cheaper than a permanent resolution to the long-standing water problem. But it bears noting that few Lillooet residents want to pay more for water and part of their complaint is that the city is installing water meters.

Until 2000, when seven people died in Walkerton, Ont., after drinking municipal tap water, Canadians took drinking water for granted, believing that it was a "Third-World problem," or a problem only on Indian reserves.

Until B.C.'s Drinking Water Protection Act was passed in 2001, there were no water quality guidelines. When the guidelines were implemented in 2003, the number of boil-water notices shot up because so few communities -- Vancouver and Victoria included -- adequately treated surface water before piping it into homes.

Without filtration, chlorination or other treatment, giardia and cryptosporidium protozoa and bacteria lurk behind the particles in turbid water. Boiling water kills the bugs. But it doesn't eliminate arsenic.

Which brings us back to Lillooet.

It has three wells, including the arsenic-laden Conway well, and two surface water sources. Over the past 16 years, the district has blended water from all five sources in an attempt to reduce the arsenic.

But for the past two years, even that hasn't always been feasible.

When forest fires raged nearby last summer, the creeks weren't usable and water was trucked in.

This year, so much mud and dirt has come down the fire-damaged mountains that until last week, no creek water was used.

Instead, the district, on the advice of engineers, has been pumping even more water than normal from the Conway well based on a theory that if more water goes through the aquifer, less arsenic (a heavy metal) will be picked up along the way.

It worked in another Interior community that has a problem with naturally occurring uranium, Hasselback says.

It's not clear whether it's working as well in Lillooet.

The ratepayers' association has been getting tap water independently tested and has found widely varying levels of arsenic at different times and in different homes in addition to wide variations in the chlorine levels.

Its conclusion is that the so-called "blending" isn't working.

Rather than risk any arsenic, the association proposes capping the wells and reverting to creek water only, even if it means having to boil water.

That seems like a Third-World solution. But a permanent, First-World solution will include blending water from both wells and creeks and improved treatment and filtration is "realistically" five years away, according to Hasselback.

He insists the district is making "reasonable progress forward." The question is: Are people willing to pay for it?

Tomorrow, a look at the public policy failures that have brought British Columbians to this brink, and the cost of making it right.

dbramham@vancouversun.com Blog: www.vancouversun.com/bramham
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