Local Angle: Flin Flon’s least-appreciated public-health initiative

How does the well-meaning goal of safer drinking water become a political hot potato? When it directly and dramatically impacts people’s wallets.

Since the City of Flin Flon Water Treatment Plant opened in 2013, it has been called an albatross, a white elephant and a needless government intervention.

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The plant is, I will venture to say, the least-appreciated public-health initiative in Flin Flon history. Even people within municipal government have questioned the need for this beleaguered facility.

Adding to the controversy, a dispute between the city and its general contractor means the final tab for the plant is still unknown. The cost was last estimated at $15.2 million, with the bill shared between the municipality, the province and the feds.

Almost all of the previous city council voted to proceed with the plant. The alternative, it was said, was to breach water-safety regulations and see Flin Flon placed under a boil-water advisory – with all of the awful implications that has for attracting and retaining residents, not to mention their health.

Flin Flonners are paying for the plant through both their property taxes and rising quarterly utility bills – and the expenses are only going to increase with time.

It should be noted that the treatment plant does more than purify our drinking water; it also overtakes functions once performed by the city’s now-demolished No. 2 Heating Plant and allows for more water storage. So not all of the $15.2 million price tag is dedicated to water quality.

So how unsafe was Flin Flon’s drinking water under the previous water-purification system consisting of basic filtering and the injection of chlorine?

A primary concern with the pre-plant water was that it consistently exceeded regulatory limits for harmful compounds known as trihalomethanes, or THMs.

Three THM tests taken in the months before the treatment plant went online showed Flin Flon water contained between 20 and 48 per cent more THMs than is permitted.

Does that mean our health was at risk? Over the long haul, the research says yes.

A provincial spokesperson told me Manitoba’s THM regulation is based on an individual’s average exposure to tap water over 70-plus years. Health risks do not lie in immediate or one-time exposures to water with high THM levels.

Do you spend $15.2 million to reduce a lifetime health risk? Health officials say yes. So does a university water biologist I interviewed about the treatment plant.

And yet many residents, looking at their dwindling bank accounts, say no.

As one plant opponent told me, governments could reduce all kinds of other health risks if taxpayers had bottomless wallets. Why not mail multivitamins to every Canadian? Or throw people in jail if they smoke?

Another opponent asked me to ponder the lifetime health risks associated with taking away hundreds of additional dollars a year from low-income residents through their rent, utility bills and property taxes. Do they eat more cheap, unhealthy food as a result? If so, what does that do to their wellbeing over
70-plus years?

To be fair, THM levels were not the only worry with Flin Flon’s pre-plant water. Other regulations, such as those relating to chlorine levels, were not always being met under the old purification system, either.

Let’s also point out the obvious and say that under no circumstances should local municipalities get to choose what constitutes safe drinking water. They lack the expertise necessary to decide something this crucial.

That said, it is clear that in the case of the Flin Flon treatment plant, what health officials think is an unacceptable risk does not match the will of many people who are paying to lower that risk.

Local Angle is published on Fridays.

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