‘An epidemic of leaky pipes’: Why these Thunder Bay residents may fight city hall

Over the past year, residents have been seeing more and more of them: pinhole leaks in copper pipes. They suspect they know why — but the city isn’t talking
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Nov 24, 2020
Russ Pattyson paid $16,000 to replace his home’s weeping tile, which had been destroyed by an underground leak. (Courtesy of Russ Pattyson)



Update: A proposed class-action lawsuit was issued against the City of Thunder Bay on November 24.

THUNDER BAY — Last October, Susan and Carlos Mendes noticed water dripping from a pinhole-sized pit on a copper pipe in their basement. When the couple called a plumber to their Erindale Street home, he put a SharkBite fitting on it as a temporary fix. But about a month later, the couple noticed another leak. Then another. And another.

In July, water began bubbling up through the concrete floor. “It wasn’t a major flood, but it was seeping through the concrete,” Carlos says. Eventually, the couple learned they had a leak underground in their service-line connection, which connects their home to the municipal water supply. Things “got really interesting,” Susan says, when they began talking to their neighbours and learned that “everybody around us was getting [pinhole leaks] all of a sudden.”

Over the past year, thousands of residents have joined a Facebook group — the Thunder Bay Leaky Pipe Club — to share reports of pinhole-sized leaks in their copper pipes. The City, which is responsible for all infrastructure not on private property, has not provided an explanation, although exasperated residents have made countless phone calls, written emails, and submitted questions to virtual town-hall meetings held by elected officials. “There was no information coming from the city,” Susan says. “No nothing.”

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Now some residents are considering launching a class-action lawsuit.

Patsy Stadnyk, who this summer discovered a leak in a rental unit she owned on Simon Fraser Drive, says she tried to get hold of David Warwick, the city's superintendent of water distribution/wastewaster collection. "He had his number changed,” she says. “I emailed him. He didn’t answer emails. I called the mayor. I called our city representatives. No answer. No response." The damage caused by the leak wasn’t covered by insurance, so she paid nearly $10,000 out of pocket.

A spokesperson told TVO.org via email that Mayor Bill Mauro “will not be providing any comment” and that “the City has nothing further to offer in terms of further comment on the situation regarding pinhole leaks.”

Many residents suspect the leaks are the result of the City’s decision to add sodium hydroxide to municipal water in order to inhibit corrosion of its lead pipes. “The City won’t admit that,” says Stadnyk, adding that “it’s not a coincidence that hundreds of people in a timeframe of a year to 18 months have, like, an epidemic of leaky pipes in Thunder Bay.”

While various factors can contribute to such leaks, experts say that sodium hydroxide is a potential culprit. “The presence of sodium hydroxide … is leading to an attack on the copper pipe, and that could create some leaks that have been observed in some locations,” Nelson Belzile, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Science, Engineering and Architecture at Laurentian University, told CBC News.

After running a corrosion-control pilot study in the Current River neighbourhood from 2015 to 2017, the City expanded the addition of sodium hydroxide citywide in early 2018 — only to remove it earlier this year after having received a number of complaints from residents about pinhole leaks. (While sodium hydroxide is known to be corrosive, other municipalities in Ontario, including London, have added the chemical to drinking water without seeing similar consequences.)

Pinhole leaks can have other causes. In 2018, hundreds of residents in Saint John, New Brunswick, found pinhole-sized leaks in their pipes. A report later found that the municipality’s decision to switch its water source from a lake to groundwater had disrupted the scale build-up that had protected them.

Regardless of the cause, the leaks are costing residents thousands of dollars: the Mendes family spent more than $9,350 to repair their pipes and the damage caused by the leaks; Russ Pattyson, who lives around the corner, paid $16,000 to replace his home’s weeping tile, which had been destroyed by an underground leak in his home’s service-line connection. 

Susan says she is “so very disappointed” with the way the City has handled the problem, noting that she would have appreciated some communication, even if it hadn’t identified the cause of the problem. “For instance, they could have said, ‘We’re not saying why it’s happening, but … we’re here to help you.’ Not this ‘we’re not talking to you.’”

Civil lawsuits are one way to get information flowing, according to Erik Knutsen, a professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University. “Class actions are sort of built for this type of claim,” he says. “I don’t think anybody ever wants to bring a lawsuit, but when you’re desperate, and you’re not being talked to ... a lawsuit makes the people being sued hear footsteps, and they have to respond.”

The discovery process, he notes, includes the “disclosure of all the information that they have about the issue they’re being sued about,” which would likely give Thunder Bay residents some answers: “Would you believe 99 per cent of civil suits settle after that discovery process? Ninety-nine. And why do they settle? They settle because suddenly that information comes out.”

Knutsen says that a communication strategy could help ease residents’ frustration — and that  the consequences of silence could be costly for the City. “If there’s nothing, here’s what that does: in litigation, that makes people start thinking about lawsuits,” he says. “What choice do you have if nobody’s talking to you?”

Although Susan says she’s “not really into” the idea of a class-action lawsuit, she feels the city hasn’t left residents with any other choice. “We want information, and we’re not going to get it. So that’s the only way.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that Patsy Stadnyk had tried to contact Tony Santos. In fact, she reached out to David Warwick.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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