Prince Rupert residents see red over yellow water
After six months of a water quality advisory, some are angered by the city’s request to pay for a service they are unable to use.
By Charlie Carey
As Prince Rupert enters its sixth month of an ongoing water quality advisory, some residents want to send a message to city council by withholding their utilities bills.
Upon opening her mail that included water fees, 30-year Prince Rupert resident Rhoda Burke was angered. “I was like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I was livid when I opened up my bill — livid!”
The city of Prince Rupert, located on the northwest coast of B.C., has been under a water quality advisory since Aug. 17, 2020 due to turbidity in the water supply. In a report by the city in 2019, the apparent direct cause of the advisory is due to the shift to the city’s back-up water supply, as the city awaits its new $30 million Woodworth Lake Dam and water treatment plant slated to finish in 2023.
Resident hasn’t heard from the city since August 2020
Burke received a message from the city council about the advisory last August and hasn’t heard anything from the city since.
“I’m withholding. And I’m going to write a letter saying it’s not acceptable. It’s the second year in a row, get your act together,” Burke said.
Despite receiving their utilities bill, which includes fees for water, at the beginning of February, residents have not had access to clean, drinkable water straight from the tap. Some have paid extra for filtration systems or bottled water.
Burke has spent over $500 on a stand-up water cooler and many 18-litre jugs of water since the advisory came into effect. Diagnosed with cancer in January of last year, she said “It became really important that I have good water because I have to drink a lot of water.”
Posts regarding the utility bill payment and the water quality advisory on the city’s Facebook page include comments from other residents asking for a discount on their utility bills or a notice that they will be withholding their payments. As of publication, Prince Rupert city staff have not answered these comments.
Utility bills paid by the end of March will receive a 10 per cent discount. Those bills not paid by the end of the year will accrue interest and be transferred over to property taxes.
Community group concerned for those isolated by COVID-19
Tom Kertes founded Community for Clean Water and said he’s looking to make the ongoing advisory a priority as it extends past the winter. Kertes, a middle school teacher, has had to navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic without having clean running water on school grounds.
The boil water direction is an advisory to those who are vulnerable and immunocompromised and not a general notice, Kertes said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why the city doesn’t respond much to any pressure or concerns about it because [for the city] it seems like it’s just affecting a small part of the community.”
The community group originated in 2018 in response to a city-wide boil water notice that lasted six weeks and subsequently triggered an after incident report. The city has not issued a watershed report or incident report since 2019.
Kertes is concerned that those who are isolated due to the pandemic are unable to access clean drinking water elsewhere.
“I’m thinking what is probably happening now is that people are drinking the water even though they’re advised not to because they don’t have any alternative. The concern with that is that the risk is high enough that we’re being alerted to it, but there’s no urgency for putting in measures that protect people when they need it.”
Turbidity could be causing health problems, resident says
After moving to Prince Rupert in August 2020, Allison Smith noticed a problem with the water supply almost immediately. “The water is yellow. Like when I took a bath, I thought there was something wrong with my pipes.”
Smith said she was really excited about having drinkable water again after living in the United Arab Emirates for the last 18 years before moving back to Canada. However, even with the use of filtration systems, the water might be contributing to her and her family’s health troubles, she said.
“Our stomachs have been upset since we came here.”
Smith intends on paying her utilities bill as she knows it will ultimately help with the infrastructure upgrade, but she said she had considered withholding the $1,400 bill. “In Canada it isn’t acceptable not to have proper drinking water here.”
While it may send a message, paying or not paying isn’t the issue, Kertes said. “The problem is the government’s not delivering and we should be demanding transparency.”
He added: “What we should be asking for is a system that will deliver clean water because the money that we pay for it, we don’t want to stop paying that money. We want to pay for it and get clean water.”
Mayor Lee Brain and the Prince Rupert infrastructure and public works department did not return calls or email requests for comment.
When asked about utility bills, the Prince Rupert city council communications department re-iterated through a statement: “Invoices are due Dec. 31. An early payment option with a discount is available for March 31. The City of Prince Rupert has no comment on residents choosing to withhold payment.”